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Outsourcing trends: Mobile business applications for a business edge

Want to know what your competitors are asking their offshore providers for? Mobile business applications, managed, supported and deployed fast for competitive gain.

While cloud computing dominates many outsourcing discussions, offshore providers are having a different conversation with their enterprise customers: mobility. As companies plot their post-recession strategies, they are showing a strong interest in using mobile business applications to gain a competitive edge in the marketplace or to optimize a critical business workflow.

"With the advent of PDAs and mobile devices, people are seeing that this is yet another way to get ahead of their competitors," said Sury Kant, president of New York-based Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) Ltd. North America.

The demand manifests itself on several fronts, said Kant and Shanky Viswanathan, who heads TCS North America's telecom services business unit and its mobility practice, which spans TCS' business units. Organizations want to take their enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and reflect them on smartphones so that employees who need the information can make decisions on the fly. Retail and other consumer-facing businesses are feverishly pursuing e-commerce initiatives for personal digital assistants (PDAs) and other devices, from flashing store coupons to providing real-time updates on accounts. Sprint Nextel Corp., AT &T and their ilk want mobility applications they can white label and include in their telecom infrastructure offerings to small and medium-sized business and enterprise customers.

As for the mobility niche where TCS claims to have a particular advantage? That would be optimizing a business process to save money and boost productivity by "plugging productivity leakages," Viswanathan said.

"This is not just Web-enabling a set of screens to put on a mobile device," Viswanathan said. "You have to look at the entire process: Where you need optimization, how the processes can change and at which touch points the mobility enablement can be done to optimize the process. You need core domain strength. And you really need to be a full-blown integrator to manage the ecosystems of these applications," he said.

Two major cons

Finding that deep domain knowledge in a provider is one of "two major cons" to taking the sourcing route for mobile business applications, said Steve Hall, a partner and managing director at Woodlands, Texas-based TPI Inc., a global sourcing advisory firm.

"You need a provider with an understanding of your enterprise data," said Hall, who leads TPI's applications outsourcing group. "They are going to have to get under the covers to really understand the data. And they need business knowledge and domain experience."

Cautions notwithstanding, there is no question that mobile business applications, as a strategic component of enterprise systems, are a major push for companies and for providers, Hall said. The emphasis on mobile platforms was evident to him on a recent visit to India, where "everyone from TCS, Infosys and Wipro down to the smaller players" was busy building out its mobility services, he said.

"This is a really strong trend that I think is a little bit under the radar because of the overload of press on cloud computing these days," Hall said.

Another reason for the lack of buzz is the tendency to equate mobility applications with Web-enabled business applications, which require access to a laptop or desktop and have been a staple of enterprise computing for close to a decade, Hall said. Mobile business applications also differ from the dizzying array of mobile apps for the consumer market in the sense that they must be managed, supported and secured. "People see these apps on their iPhones and Droids and think it's all so easy. The complexity is lost on them," he said.

Critical to mobile business applications: Speed to market

With the influx of iPhones, iPads and Android devices into both the enterprise and the consumer market, CIOs are under "tremendous pressure" to adapt business applications for these devices, Hall said. Couple these circumstances with a lack of internal expertise and money to develop mobile business applications, and it makes sense that CIOs are turning to sourcing providers, he said.

But maybe the biggest argument for seeking outside help, Hall said, is speed to market and rapid prototyping.

"The thing with mobile is that you can't have a six- to nine-month project to roll these out. Going with somebody that has a platform that can launch these quickly is going to be critical," Hall said.

The thing with mobile is that you can't have a six- to nine-month project to roll these out. Going with somebody that has a platform that can launch these quickly is going to be critical.

Steve Hall, partner and managing director, TPI Inc.

Judging from their reluctance to go public with their plans, it is clear that CIOs have a high, albeit cautious interest in the competitive advantage mobile business applications could bring to their organizations. Using offshore providers, however, was not on their agendas.

The CIO of a large metropolitan newspaper, for example, told that using mobile platforms to drive content and custom applications to customers is an important initiative for the paper's digital business content group, which he runs. He said he has used domestic partners for help, but no offshore providers, for the very reason cited as a plus by many experts: speed.

"What we have learned when we have done the mobile products for the external audiences is that we need very rapid turnaround time," the publishing CIO said. "It helps to have somebody with that experience that is onshore, not offshore."

The CIO of a large U.S. department store chain said his IT group is developing mobile financial applications that would tie into ERP systems. The chain's executives would have access to, and share, this information during meetings and on the fly, for more effective and efficient collaboration, he said. He has bought iPads for his executives, so they could see "what it can do for them right now," and prod them to think about the potential business benefits of other mobile computing applications. The chain already has a robust initiative for getting shopping information to customers' mobile phones.

As for sending this work to an outsourcing provider?

"The offshore companies have all reached out to me," the chain's CIO said. "I am not sure if I would actually entrust the offshore companies with this development. All the iPhone apps tie into our Web databases and e-commerce piece, so I don't know if I would trust anyone outside of our four walls with that task."

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

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