Why the mobile client concept is outdated
Having a mobile client carries both a positive and a negative message. On the positive side: “Yes, you can use it from a smartphone”. On the negative side: “We gave it the name mobile client because it is not the same as the desktop client”.
Most likely, it is quite different, in many ways. First, the user interface is different so you can’t carry over your instinctive usage pattern from the desktop to the mobile client. Second, its features are limited to the ones which the designers deemed as likely to be required from a smartphone. Lastly, new features will probably appear first on the desktop client and only later on the mobile client.
Let’s also remember one more negative implication of mobile clients; just think of the waste of engineering talent and budgets in developing two types of client for every software solution. Wouldn’t you want this talent and budgets spent on improving the core functionality?
Why have we allowed ourselves to accept this state of affairs? I think this is due to technological and business reasons. Technologically, the basic functionality of smartphones was, until recently, just too limited to make it possible to deploy rich functionality mobile clients on them. Businesswise, the wave of conducting much of the business over mobile devices was slow to start, though now it is emerging as a tsunami that will sweep away old work habits.
Enter the new paradigm, which we’ll call ‘100% pure mobile’. In this new world, there will be only one kind of client. It will treat all devices as mobile devices, whether you happen to use the software on your desktop computer with 21 inch display, your mobile tablet (usually 7 inch to 10 inch display) or your smartphone (typically 3 inch to 4 inch), you get access to the same functionality and just about the same user experience.
At this point, some may object that there is some functionality that just can’t be deployed on a smartphone due to its limitations such as small display, lack of mouse or keyboard, limited connection bandwidth etc.
Another objection is even when the functionality can be deployed, it requires rearranging the user interface and changing the workflow to make it fit for use on a smartphone. To some extent, both objections are correct; I wouldn’t expect to use my smartphone for detailed 3D design of a new car anytime soon (and not just because I’m not a car designer).
However, there exist solutions today which deal very well with most real life business software needs, enabling software developers to meet those needs consistently even on such widely different devices as a 21 inch desktop display with keyboard and mouse and a 3.5 inch touchscreen. To see this in action, just compare modern business software running on the iPhone and the iPad; it looks and feels just about the same, while adapting to the very different size.
More than everything else, mobile usage would come to govern the user interface planning due to the inexorable move towards mobile usage. When desktop access used to be the norm, it may have been OK to treat mobile access as the exception, a special case for specific tasks which just must have a custom-designed mobile client (e.g. parcel delivery). Now that various studies predict that 70% or more of all workers will use modern mobile devices (smartphones and tablets), it is the desktop client which is fading into the status of exception and special case.
What will a 100% mobile solution be like?
The basic characteristic is defined by the name. Designed from the ground up to be used from mobile devices, with just one kind of client, the one that runs on these devices. Desktop machines, and even laptops, will be regarded as mobile devices that don’t often move or don’t move while being used. How often do you use your laptop while walking around?
This implies several more characteristics that will make the new breed of enterprise software much more useful as well as much more fun, due to the rich context available to a mobile device; the location, movement (e.g. driving, walking, sitting down), status (e.g. working alone, working at customer location, in a meeting, on the phone, or off-duty), environment (e.g. in an office, a restaurant, a lecture room or a vehicle) etc.
The user interface will make full use of these rich cues to configure itself to our needs, infer the next steps we may wish to take, and select the right user interface action. By the way, this does not require any breakthrough in artificial intelligence; it can be as simple as setting a parcel delivery automation system to bring up the right signature form when arriving at the delivery location, and to display the next task once the user starts driving away from that location.
Lastly, 100% pure mobile software will be highly dynamic, changing quickly in response to user needs (and this quick improvement cycle will be helped by the removal of the need to develop both desktop and mobile clients).
From the technology point of view, the new architectures for 100% pure mobile solution will less complex in being able to avoid developing two different clients (often deploying a different middleware layer for each), while more complex in catering for the requirements of the mobile world, including unreliable communication, self adaptation to widely varying devices, and using rich context cues as described above.
Glimpse into the future?
How can I be sure that this prediction is not just 100% pure imagination? Obviously, no prediction is ever guaranteed, but in this case the smoke signals are already rising. Let me share just a couple of such indications.
SAP co-CEO Jim Hagemann Snabe said in May: “In some countries, the mobile device is the infrastructure. Mobile is the new desktop.” How long before all countries get to be that way? A couple of weeks ago, Tellabs CIO Jean Holly predicted that: “Soon all apps will first be developed mobile, and only a tiny subset later converted to desktop.”
Put these together with the trend of rising use of smartphones in the workplace, and the conclusion is nearly inescapable.
Does a 100% pure mobile enterprise solution exist today? As far as I know, there isn’t any such solution for complex, core business processes. Yet, some are already getting quite close to 100%.
ClickSoftware is a provider of automated workforce management and optimisation solutions for every size of field service business. http://www.clicksoftware.com/
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