Things to consider when developing an enterprise mobile app strategy

Enterprise mobile apps are all the rage, according to analyst data. ResearchMoz just announced that the enterprise mobile app development services market will grow at a CAGR of 13.4 per cent from 2014-2019. But what kind of apps are we talking about?

Many companies use mobile devices as basic productivity tools, with email and calendaring forming the bulk of their apps landscape. BlackBerry was one of the most famous pioneers for that kind of thing. Today, companies are increasingly interested in enterprise mobile apps that do more, integrating more closely with core business functions.

In 2014, CDW surveyed 374 mobile app decision makers who used both off-the-shelf and custom apps to find out what their attitudes to mobile apps were. 48 per cent of them said that their mobile app budget had increased overall.

Two flavours for enterprise mobile apps

These apps come in two flavours: off the shelf, and custom. Off-the-shelf apps do far more than email and calendaring, and focus on enterprise functions ranging from sales to HR, but they still downloadable from an app store with relatively few configuration options. This makes them suitable for simple business processes.

Custom apps are tailored for a business’s specific needs, and are generally suitable for complex, intricate mechanics that the business doesn’t want to change too much.

Custom apps were a big part of the mobile apps budget. According to the CDW survey, businesses said that on average they spent 11 per cent of their 2014 IT budgets on custom mobile apps and related technologies.

Each quarter, market analyst 451 Research asks companies what their biggest area of focus is when building mobile apps for the business. Q3 last year was the first time that general internal business processes beat customer-facing apps.

Wobbly platforms

This changing statistics show that companies are starting to explore opportunities for internal business apps, but the problem is that the technology is still maturing, warned Chris Marsh, who directs 451 Research’s enterprise mobility channel.

“We’re beginning to see a bit of a shift, and companies are realizing that there are lots of productivity benefits out there,” he said. “But from a technology point of view, we’re a way from having any kind of standard that we can rely on.”

Vendors started tackling enterprise mobile apps by creating mobile extensions for their existing back-end enterprise tools, in areas like CRM and ERP. They mostly failed, said Marsh, because they still relied on back-end products that weren’t really engineered for mobile. They’d end up trying to pull lots of complex data from a cumbersome legacy system into a mobile platform that it wasn’t designed for.

Now, large IT vendors such as Oracle are trying to create connectors into their back-end software that customers can then use to create their own mobile user interfaces. That gives them more flexibility in deciding what data they pull into their applications, Marsh said.

“We’ve only really see the large vendors invest in that kind of tooling in the last couple of years. Companies are beginning to get a little bit of traction with it, but still not enough to push the needle for us to have enterprises deploying tens and tens of apps. We’re still at an immature state overall.”

The other issue lies with the platforms used to build custom mobile apps. These are frameworks and toolkits designed for the creation of mobile apps that can operate on various devices, and they haven’t been very sophisticated so far, Marsh said.

“From a custom development point of view, there has been no platform or tool set yet that has given enterprises the right risk/reward balance to invest and standardize on having strategy rather than just trying to pick off an app here or there,” he warned.

These platforms haven’t slotted nicely into existing developer workflows, according to Marsh. Consequently, they are mostly used to develop mobile apps where ad hoc opportunities arise, rather than supporting top-down mobile strategies that see multiple mobile apps working together in concert.

Where does all this leave companies when pursuing mobile app strategies? If off-the-shelf apps won’t cut it, and firms don’t have the in-house skill to navigate these complex choices, then outsourcing to digital agencies may be their most viable route. That’s going to create a lot of business for external development houses who are up to the challenge.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Danny Bradbury
Danny Bradbury
Danny Bradbury is a technology journalist with over 20 years' experience writing about security, software development, and networking.

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