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Enterprise mobile app development: No easy answers

Enterprise mobile app development tools are proliferating but far from mature, say CIOs and analysts -- and forget about a single platform that can do it all.

CKE Restaurants, parent company of fast-food chains Hardee's and Carl's Jr., jumped on the mobile application bandwagon early, launching a location-based loyalty rewards app in 2010 for Apple and Android phone users. Each time customers "checked in" at a restaurant with CKE's Happy Star app, they accumulated points they could redeem for discounted or free food. "That was our first big foray into customer-facing mobile," said CTO Tom Lindblom.

The app was designed in-house and built by a top-tier mobile app development platform firm, said Lindblom. ("I probably shouldn't say who, but it's in the Upper Midwest," he said.) CKE won kudos for being among the first in the quick-service industry to offer its own mobile loyalty program. Since its launch, the app has been revamped and redubbed Super Star Rewards, and it is meticulously managed to keep up with the latest mobile operating systems upgrades.

But the 3,539-store company which does business in 42 states and 33 foreign countries and is 78% franchised, isn't rushing to push out more mobile apps, at least not those destined for the consumer market. While the industry press is filled with stories about small restaurant chains "doing interesting stuff with mobile," Lindblom said, at larger chains, especially ones like CKE that have franchisees using a variety of software, consumer mobile apps can be a tough nut to crack.

"The challenge for us is to put out a product that is both compelling to our customer and one we can execute on as a company," he said. With an internal employee app, the IT organization can hold off on upgrading the app to the latest version of Internet Explorer until it is ready -- and, in fact, is often asked by the business not to upgrade because it likes the way the app works. "We don't have the luxury of doing that with a customer-facing app. I can't turn around and say, 'Customers, don't upgrade your iOS, no, no, no, and don't get this new Android version -- give us a month,'" he said.

Tom Lindblom Tom Lindblom

As for the legions of mobile providers out there claiming to help companies compel and deliver, Lindblom said he believes tools are getting better. With the explosion of devices, mobile certainly is no longer the "afterthought it used to be" among the largest technology players, he said, pointing to Microsoft's "mobile-first" strategy as an example.

"It's fair to say these products are improving month by month. But I don't think it's fair to say the tools today have the level of maturity around, say, managing a desktop," he said. "I think there are still a lot of folks out there doing a lot of these things on their own."

Charting a path through a thicket of mobile tools

Lindblom is not alone among C-level executives trying to figure out the complex calculus of skills and engineering required to deliver a mobile strategy that adds value to the business. At many companies, mobile applications can cover a lot of terrain, involving employee, business partner and consumer applications consumed on a variety of devices. Developing a mobile app strategy that addresses all these constituents often requires the expertise of IT and business people from across the enterprise, along with a hefty assist from outside partners to help distribute and manage these apps. What it likely doesn't entail -- and shouldn't, for now -- is a simple technology solution, said Jason Wong, research analyst at Gartner Inc., who focuses on enterprise mobile application development, management and strategy.

Jason WongJason Wong

"One of the things we tell our clients is that IT organizations can't be a bottleneck and they can't be the judge, jury and executioner in terms of a mobile app strategy. Mobile applications permeate the entire organization; different lines of business will have different requirements for a mobile app in terms of architecture (native, hybrid, Web) and different types of tools and different back-end systems, and there is no one single product [or] platform that is going to do it all," Wong said.

And no wonder. Companies have told Gartner they require a range of capabilities and attributes from an enterprise mobile app development platform, according to the consultancy's latest research, including:

  • Cross-platform support;
  • Multi-architecture support, or the ability to support native mobile Web and hybrid architectures;
  • Application development lifecycle features, such as metadata-driven applications, prototyping, multi-device testing ("test cloud"), multi-platform build process ("build cloud"), versioning, configuration management and distribution of apps through various mechanisms;
  • Cloud-based services for data persistence, notifications, data analysis and social media integration;
  • Leveraging of standards (HTML5 and CSS3) and de facto standards (jQuery, PhoneGap and Apache Cordova);
  • An ecosystem of third-party libraries, frameworks, tools, components and services partners that can fill in the gaps in the offering; and
  • A track record of successful deployments at different levels of scale and in different verticals.

Source: Magic Quadrant for Mobile Application Development Platforms, Van L. Baker, Richard Marshall, Ray Valdes, Jason Wong, September 2014

If you want to build an app that is going to fail, then focus just on the back-end infrastructure.
Ty RollinCTO, Mobiquity

With enterprise demand this broad and deep, CIOs should not be surprised that "solutions" are sprouting like dandelions, but most offer only pieces of the mobile ecosystem, Wong and others said. Some large business application software providers, including IBM, SAP and Kony, are offering enterprise mobile application development platforms that claim to support a gamut of mobile needs: from à la carte mobile app development to security, deployment, real-time customization and analytics. However, not only is the jury still out on whether these platforms can really do it all, there is also a chorus of critics who are adamant that taking a single-stack approach, no matter how comprehensive or compatible with existing systems, is the kiss of death for CIOs in the fast-moving mobile environment where user experience determines success.

"If you want to build an app that is going to fail, then focus just on the back-end infrastructure," said Ty Rollin, CTO at Mobiquity, a professional services firm in Boston that focuses on mobile strategy. "The single stack limits you at the front end and ends up being a waste of money and time for anyone who goes down that path. Apps don't come from just IT, and you can't wave a wand and get a solution that is supposed to build apps for people. You have to find ways to expose the data so others can build them."

His preferred platform play is technology referred to as mobile backend as a service (MBaaS) architecture, or mobile middleware. When done right, he said, can help companies expose corporate data for use by the enterprise, and not just for building mobile apps but for many application projects. But he warned that once that data is exposed, "CIOs need to figure out how to manage multiple uses for the data. It is a new evolution and challenge for CIOs."

Appifying 'Fifty Shades of Grey'

For Gordon Paddison, CEO of Stradella Road, a marketing firm based in Santa Monica, Calif., , MBaaS turned out to be the platform of choice. Stradella, whose clients include a who's who of film studios and other entertainment industry name brands, designed the interactive mobile app (and website) that whipped up audience interest in the movie Fifty Shades of Grey.

"We realized if things went well, this app would have to scale, be secured and delivered in a way that would not get Universal Studios in trouble," Paddison said. The agency partnered with MBaaS provider Kinvey to help it successfully manage the app that drew hundreds of thousands of users. (At its peak, the Fifty Shades app generated more than 2.7 million API calls per day.) In addition to Kinvey's adroit handling of the traffic, the MBaaS provider's pay-as-you-go model also is a good fit for Stradella's client base.

No single vendor can guide you through the journey here. Enterprises need to take responsibility for building sufficient tools and applying the right tools.
Tony Byrnefounder, Real Story Group

"We are creating an app now for the home entertainment audience -- and then the app is going to go dark for a while," Paddison said. Stradella won't likely know for sure until next year if Universal wants to keep the relationship going. "The next movie is not green-lit," Paddison said, but if and when it is, he added, "I can go to Kinvey and say, 'We're ramping up for 2016 -- ready?'"

Many companies, of course, will not need an as-a-service platform to handle mass-market consumer apps. For mobile applications intended to address short-term business processes (seasonal selling) or crises (natural disasters), Gartner's Wong suggests CIOs look at the so-called rapid mobile application development (RMAD) code-free tools that promise business users the ability to quickly build and manage good-enough internal apps to address specific business issues.

'Savvy enterprises are taking more control' over mobile experiences

The thicket of technology out there can be overwhelming, said Tony Byrne, founder of the Real Story Group, a vendor-neutral consulting firm based in Olney, Md. He advises CIOs to focus on two broad categories: mobile device management (MDM) and what he calls mobile experience management.

"Mobile experience management answers the question, 'Are my employees and customers able to do what they need while they are on the go?' You can't rely on your business application software vendors to provide solutions here. Savvy enterprises are taking more control over these experiences," Byrne said in an email. And IT should not go it alone. Companies are forming mobile "centers of excellence," he said, to drive standards and capabilities and set parameters for customizing apps -- a governance structure also advocated by Gartner's Wong and Mobiquity's Rollin.

"The depth and breadth of these services will depend on the complexity of the experiences you're trying to provide. But no single vendor can guide you through the journey here. Enterprises need to take responsibility for building sufficient tools and applying the right tools," Byrne said.

For Larry Bolick, CIO at Aquent LLC, a Boston-based marketing and staffing agency, taking responsibility for mobile tools means taking a step back. Aquent is not doing a lot of enterprise mobile application development. "I can see plenty of opportunity in the consumer world, and I can see plenty of opportunity for large companies with big field services for mobile apps, but I think the key question, in my mind at least, is whether mobile apps will be around long enough to prove the value of the investment," he said.

A seasoned IT leader who came of professional age in the client/server era, Bolick believes the window of opportunity to make mobile apps pay may be shorter than the vendor hype would have CIOs think. "People are saying this is a new architecture stream we need to support and, meanwhile, not thinking about five or six years ahead -- or sooner -- when it might be dead-ended for business environments," he said. "The Internet is becoming the ubiquitous Internet. We are talking about 5G services being built into products. So the question is: Will the ubiquitous Internet kill off the need for business mobile apps? It's an honest question."

Start with the end in mind

Bruce Schinelli, CIO and vice president at TTX, which provides rail cars and freight rail management services to the rail industry, also believes that CIOs need to think long and hard about why they are developing mobile apps.

Bruce SchinelliBruce Schinelli

Based in Chicago, privately held TTX is owned by railroad companies, including the four major U.S. railroads and others in Canada and Mexico. The 70-year-old company not only aims to supply its owners with railcars at the lowest possible cost but also to maximize the value of these large assets by helping maintain them, Schinelli said. Eighteen months ago, IT launched a mobile solution that has already improved billing accuracy and boosted the productivity of the maintenance crews and in time will transform how railcars are maintained. From conception to implementation the app took about six months to build in-house.

"We looked at the different [mobile app development] stacks," he said. "It was not so much that these frameworks were wanting but that they were overly complex with potential functionality you don't need," Schinelli said, comparing them to the shelfware CIOs have bought over the years. "We needed to do mobile for a pretty specific purpose, not boil the ocean."

In TTX's case, the initial purpose was to use mobile computing to improve the recordkeeping involved in the maintenance done by employees at the 50 or so maintenance shops TTX operates along the railroads. The work takes place in rough outdoor conditions, where connectivity is spotty or nonexistent, and work is performed by employees who often wear gloves while working. Notes on the car repairs were traditionally recorded by the crews using pencil and paper. The application was written on a Windows platform for a hardened PC, encased in plastic and with a touchscreen.

"One key thing we did is write it asynchronously," Schinelli said, to account for the spotty connectivity. "The epiphany came when we recognized that what we were doing was replacing pen and paper, and it had to work that well. That was the first principle and that was what drove how the whole system was architected."

The app has gone through multiple iterations, another key development principle for his team. And he is looking at different types of PCs as well as tablets for supervisors. But grasping that first principle of enterprise mobile application development -- that is, having a firm idea of what they were trying to accomplish with the app -- proved to be the most challenging and most critical aspect of the project. "If you get the assumptions wrong, then you have to do a lot of rework. The hard work was making sure our designers and architects had a firm idea -- not an idealized notion -- of how this would work out in the field," he said.

CKE's Lindblom seconds that. "The key thing is making sure that whatever you're doing matches up with your customer base and business objectives. It should be something that you're embracing because it is part of your identity and an extension of your brand," he said.

Let me know what you think of this story. Email me or find me on Twitter @ltucci.

Next Steps

For more on enterprise mobile application development and management tools, check out this primer on enterprise mobile app development platforms from Frost &Sullivan analyst Michael Brandenburg and get expert advice on enabling enterprise mobile apps from Jack E. Gold, founder of J. Gold Associates LLC. Then, read how one CIO introduced rapid app development to boost business/IT collaboration.

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