No utopia for device independence

by Colin Challenger

The potential for mobile platforms in essential industries is huge. From senior managers monitoring the company’s performance on their iPads to field engineers using ruggedised tablets for site inspections, the ability to access and update data on the move is a key advantage.

However, the mobile market is constantly changing, and choosing the right platform can be difficult. A few years ago, Microsoft and RIM appeared to be strong candidates for mobile systems; now iOS and Android seem to be dominating the debate.

A future-proof strategy needs to take this volatile market into account: it’s important not to get locked into a platform that doesn’t move with the times.

Device independence – the ability to run the same applications equally well on whatever device you choose – seems to offer an answer. But companies that misunderstand the practicalities of device independence often end up committing to mobile projects that just can’t be delivered with current technologies.

From a technical perspective, true device independence is still an unreachable utopia. Although platform-independent standards such as HTML5/JavaScript/CSS3 are becoming more mainstream, they still have challenges delivering the rich user experience and full device features that today’s technology-savvy users expect.

We’ve already seen costly u-turns from companies and vendors that have jumped the gun by trying to harness web standards that aren’t yet fully fit for purpose.

Mobile Enterprise Application Platforms (MEAPs) are an alternative and more mature option, but they can lack some of the rich functionality that end-users crave: a fast, rich interface and the use of advanced device-specific features such as accelerometers. The promise of multi-platform, ‘build once, run anywhere’ technology is hugely attractive for software vendors and clients in essential industries. There are compromises with all approaches, but as the mobile market evolves, MEAP will soon become a realistic option for clients looking to build bespoke mobile applications.

Right now, though, the only tried-and-tested approach to device independence is – in a purist sense – not really device independence at all. It involves developing applications specifically for each platform the customer wants to support. This gives end-users the absolute best device experience, whichever device they choose to use.

Of course, keeping applications compatible with multiple platforms is more complex for the software vendor and customer alike, but there are a couple of ways to make life easier.

First, draw up a list of minimum requirements for supported devices – size, battery life, ruggedness and so on – and use them as a reference framework to evaluate new devices. This will reduce the need to develop workarounds and exceptions to deal with the latest ‘shiny new device’.

Second, take advantage of existing mobile products such as MDM (Mobile Device Management) and MAM (Mobile Application Management) – these can make it much simpler to deploy, configure and manage applications on multiple device types. Of course, these device and application management products are developed natively on each platform, which gives them optimal performance and usability.

The advantage of providing device independence through native support for multiple platforms is that it actually works – and we can prove it. Our clients are using mobile processes originally developed ten years ago for Windows Mobile devices, which now run perfectly, without change, on the latest generation of iPhones and iPads.

Looking to the future, as platform-independent standards become more mature and feature-rich, they will become a more viable and elegant option for mobile development. At AMT-SYBEX, we’re investing heavily in HTML5 and MEAP support so that we’ll be ready when the time is right. But in the here-and-now, a more practical, less purist approach will deliver much better results.

There’s no utopia at the moment – but with the help of an experienced vendor and the right approach, essential industries can still make platform independence a practical reality.

Contact the author