CIOs need a mobile application strategy, but crafting one isn't easy

Linda Tucci, Executive Editor

With the use of mobile devices to access business applications exploding, companies are under pressure to craft a mobile application strategy for their workforce and for customers. The key tasks for CIOs, experts say, are first, to understand what their organization is trying to achieve with mobility -- and second, to decide what IT has to do with any of that. (Hint: You might be out in the cold already.)

Executing on an organization's goals for either its workforce or its customers won't necessarily be easy, according to SearchCIO.com interviews with experts and digital media experts across a spectrum of industries. First, there are the technical challenges related to adapting applications to the plethora (8,000, by some estimates) of mobile computing devices in use. Second, there are the fundamental business questions raised by any application deployment. Organizations need to know who is accessing which business applications and for what purpose, experts stressed -- before they start optimizing content and delivery for computing devices.

"It is important to identify what your mobile population is accessing, and what device they are using," said Apoorv Durga, an analyst with Olney, Md.-based Real Story Group.

An organization's text, video and audio content, as well as its layout's look and feel, all have to be adapted to mobile devices' various screen sizes and capabilities, Durga said. An iPhone used in horizontal and vertical mode and equipped with a Global Positioning System calls for a different app than the one accessed by a low-end Nokia phone. The iPhone and iPad don't have Flash. BlackBerrys show a page with three columns; smaller phones don't. "Once you have identified your mobile population and you know the differences in terms of limitations and capabilities of the devices they are using, you need a strategy for each of these devices," he added.

Curating the mobile application strategy

Even sophisticated companies readily confess to the challenges of crafting a mobile strategy that makes sense. At SAS Institute Inc., getting a mobile strategy right is part of a major new effort to digitize its operations, according to Aaron Hill, senior director of the Cary, N.C.-based company's Online Strategy and Services group. SAS has discovered its customers are not using their mobile devices, for example, to drill down into the features of the provider's latest business intelligence offerings. Reading case studies on mobile devices, on the other hand, is popular, the company has found. The SAS website remains the venue of choice for intensive research, he said, but even there the company is schooling its writers to pare down content into bite-sized chunks for a digital reader.

Hilton Worldwide Inc. is "very busy figuring out which devices and platforms to support," said Marie Williams, senior director for Web innovation for the hotel chain's Global Online Services group. But the bigger challenge is "knowing what to leave out" of your applications for mobile devices, she said. "You are not just recreating your website for mobile. You need to figure out who is using mobile and what problems they are trying to solve," she added. A detailed scoring-feature service is not something Hilton will rush to put into a mobile phone app, she said, but a coupon alert sent to customers walking in the vicinity of a Hilton spa could enhance those customers' experience and boost revenue.

Buying time to create a mobile strategy

If your company is just starting to figure out how to develop an effective mobile strategy, it's not alone. Many companies are in the early stages of creating a mobility strategy that actually enhances the business, research suggests. One-third of the world's most visited sites take more than a second to load on an iPad -- arguably the hottest mobile device of the recent holiday season -- recent research from Zeus Technology Ltd., a UK-based maker of application traffic management software, found. Nor were those sites fully optimized for the iPad, with 82% not offering video on their iPad-compatible websites, and 33% featuring video that didn't work on iPads because of compatibility issues. The study is a follow-up to research done by Google Inc. and Microsoft about a year ago on the effect of using Web apps that were not optimized for mobile devices, said Zeus Technology Chief Marketing Officer Kosten Metreweli.

You are not just recreating your site for mobile. You need to figure out who is using mobile and what problems they are trying to solve.

Marie Williams, senior director for Web innovation, Global Online Services, Hilton Worldwide Inc.

"Google found that if they introduced a 2.5-second delay, it created a 4.5% drop in revenue." said Metreweli, whose company has a dog in this fight.

Zeus Technology makes software that identifies the client on the browser to "transform the content on the fly so it is appropriate," Metreweli said. For example, an American reader accessing the website of the British Broadcasting Corp. (a Zeus customer) would get an app containing advertising. Readers in the UK would not, however, because the news organization's public funding prohibits online advertisements.

The software buys companies time to develop a mobile strategy, Metreweli said. "It means you don't have to go to the expense of creating multiple versions of your application. Instead you can fix the problem immediately, give the user a good experience, then take the time to develop your iPad app if you need to have something native."

Shifting focus from devices to operating systems

Thanks to the dynamic nature of the mobility market, many technical challenges are diminishing, even for companies who are not thinking of using sophisticated load-balancing software.

"The good news is that the pressure in the mobile sector to consolidate [multiple] operating systems down to three or maybe four is going to make it much easier when companies are engaging customers and accommodating employees," said Pieter de Villiers, CEO of Clickatell Ltd., a mobile messaging provider based in Redwood City, Calif.

As a result, de Villiers sees enterprises steering away from trying to handle lots of devices and focusing instead on compatibility with the operating systems. CIOs, however, need to keep business requirements uppermost in mind as they help develop their company's mobile strategy.

CIOs and chief technology officers have tended to focus on the "sexiness" of mobile computing technologies: what they bring in terms of location and whether they provide a rich experience, de Villiers said.

"But those are the relics of where mobility is now," de Villiers said. "Mobile is really about access to information, anytime, everywhere."

Even a rather bare-bones technology, such as Short Message Service (SMS), the area where Clickatell works, is becoming a mobile strategy tool. The SMS software offers enough characters to communicate a succinct message, provides a link to a URL for customer interaction and contains an embedded click-to-call feature. For banks whose customers have easy access to the Internet, a text alert about a withdrawal might not be so useful. For banks with customers in emerging markets where Internet penetration is less than 12%, SMS is an important component of a mobile strategy, de Villiers said.

"All of a sudden it is not about the sexiness of the actual technology, but the simple fact that you can reach every single one of your customers, provided you have their mobile number," de Villiers said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.

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