Organizations cannot appl(e)aud a vendor lock-in
Now that modern mobile devices (e.g. smartphones, table PCs) have made great strides in their rich user interfaces and people are accustomed to using them in daily life, they're becoming ubiquitous in the workplace as well. Checking email and synching calendars to mobile devices are common tasks for business people, many of whom are hungry for richer business applications – like mobile BI apps that allow them to interact with their performance information anywhere, anytime. Mobile BI is on the top list of projects for decision support at organizations around the world, and managers are eagerly looking at solutions currently on the market and learning that they're one of two breeds: native apps or Web apps. Which one is the future of mobile BI?
Native apps are applications that are device-specific – that is, they are platform and hardware dependent. They became necessary when Apple launched the iPhone and forced all developers to create applications specific to the device to be sold on its App Store. Since 2007, developers have created hundreds of thousands of native apps for iPhone that have been downloaded billions of times. But all of these apps need to run through the evaluation process of a single company for a single device category.
Although the iPhone has made some strides into the corporate world – managers do love these gadgets for their stylishness, ease of use, and the device-specific applications themselves – competition isn't standing still. Many BI vendors have developed native apps to run on iPhones and iPads or have at least provided a front-end interpreter to handle BI presentation layers. But at what cost? Is it worth it for these vendors to put their focus on a single platform when there is an alternative? Does the small bit of increased functionality in a native app justify the decision to go that direction?
A recent Gartner report shows that Android will be the leading platform for mobile devices at the end of 2011 and that Microsoft, with their Nokia partnership in place, is expected to gain back a decent market share. Neither Google nor Microsoft are betting on a "walled garden" approach, but instead heavily promote Web apps.
So what makes Web apps different than native apps? Web apps run through mobile browsers on smartphones and tablet PCs. You don't need to download them like you do with native apps, but you can save them as a bookmark on your phone's desktop, which allows you to access them just like a native app. New Web apps are based on an open standard called HTML 5. It's true that native apps are a bit more responsive than Web apps right now, but HTML 5 is gaining more acceptance and is being implemented in more and more mobile browsers all the time. It would be fair to say that by mid-2012, most of the native features of smartphones will also be available to Web apps.
Another plus in the Web apps column is that Apple's Safari browser on iPhones and iPads runs a clean implementation of HTML and provides many HTML5 features even today. So users can expect that many of today's 'unique' iPhone app features will come to Web apps shortly.
So what (or who) is the driver of Web apps becoming the new normal? Globally, organizations are working on Web apps to roll-out to their large customer bases. That especially includes the telecom carriers that broadly support the Wholesales Application Community (WAC), but intense support for Web apps comes from an organization that has no mobile phone products or platform in their portfolio: Facebook. Their CTO, Bret Taylor sees HTML 5 as one of the most important focus areas for his company so they can roll-out blockbusters such as Farmville, Restaurant City, and MafiaWars to its hundreds of millions of users on mobile devices. Although many social game developers focus on Flash today, Taylor believes that HTML 5 has the same potential and that HTML 5 – also supported on iPhones and iPads – will allow Web apps to run everywhere, breaking down the technology barriers some vendors have raised.
With Facebook's large user base and active developer community, HMTL 5 will most likely gain even broader acceptance in the mobile consumer business in record time. The business intelligence industry can learn from this. Currently many BI vendors are employing a mix of development strategies – IBM Cognos Mobile is a native app that can run as a Web app, MicroStrategy and RoamBI have gone native, SAP Sybase is a hybrid Web-native app depending on your platform, etc.
At arcplan, we reviewed the app hype in 2010 and decided not to follow a single-vendor-device roll-out but instead to focus on our historic strength to provide the broadest deployment option to our customers and partners. Since the inception of arcplan's mobile offering, the dynamic HTML strategy – now called Web apps – was our clear focus. That includes HMTL 5 by nature, leveraging all new and upcoming features for mobile BI support. And just recently we saw a BI vendor shifting focus to follow arcplan's lead: QlikTech announced a change in its mobile deployment strategy, providing its customers a device-agnostic approach with a focus on Web apps, no longer on native apps. Proof that our strategy is taking hold in the industry.
So all this is good news to those that need to make a mobile BI strategy decision in the near future. Your vendor selection should focus on Web apps – so you're independent of the mobile device strategy your organization may employ in the future. Your users will have a clean implementation of their BI applications on any device, often comparable to what they experience on their large-screen desktop. And maybe some of today's beloved simple navigation gestures on your smartphone and tablet PC will make it back to the "big screens." That would be cool, wouldn't it?