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DA Systems

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Mobility in the cloud

Mobile platforms are all the rage at the moment – but what does this actually mean, and how do they differ from traditional technologies for running mobile applications?

Any business that has already embraced telematics or a mobile workforce management solution is, of course, already using some type of mobility or cloud-based platform to import and export data to and from devices. It’s not a revolutionary concept.

Nor, to be honest, is there anything intrinsically new about moving mission-critical IT services to the Internet; companies in the delivery and field service sectors are already big users of cloud computing services.

Yet despite all this, mobility platforms have become a seriously hot topic. So what’s changed, and why all the noise and creation of new acronyms including enterprise mobility management (EMM), enterprise mobility platform (EMP) and mobile enterprise application platform (MEAP)?

One reason mobility platforms have moved into the mainstream is in response to the fact that as businesses mobilise more of their business processes and extend them to more of their employees, managing it all becomes more complex. The range of devices used grows as does the number of applications.

That brings challenges in device deployment and management, application management and securing corporate data. Then there is the requirement to integrate quite complex data streams in real time with back-end systems – necessary to transform the operation from reactive to proactive, and enhancing the ability to manage customer expectations without increasing costs. Finally there is the challenge of doing all of this without sacrificing existing infrastructure and in-house applications.

“Mobility has become a mainstream function in many companies,” says Gil Bouhnick, associate vice-president of mobile solutions for ClickSoftware. “As they look to mobilise more of their business processes, the volumes and the range of data flows are increasing.

“Apart from accessing key field data, companies are automating functionality such as time-and-attendance forms, expense sheets and vacation requests.” It’s no longer just about business tasks either – employees want access to data for their personal lives, too, often using their company devices.

While much of the publicity about mobility platforms has been about consumerisation of IT in business, and managing the challenges of bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies and the proliferation of apps, the development of these feature-rich platforms with flexibility and scalability have great appeal for logistics and field service sectors too, including inter-company sharing of data.

Flexibility in mobile devices is increasingly demanded, even when they are used on-premise. So says Gareth Thomas of Zetes, who adds: “Logistics companies have traditionally had a single estate of devices in the warehouse, with the same operating system, firmware and so on. This made managing them relatively simple.

“But companies now want greater flexibility in device choice, and need tools to manage multiple devices to avoid the pain of re-engineering the apps. A mobility platform offers both an instant solution for deploying legacy apps on to new hardware, and a road map for future app development.”
Companies also want convergence between the support element and device management, says Thomas, so that all asset management activity can be done automatically and online. “End users don’t want to have to source four or five different partners for one solution.”

Mobility management

Scalability is at the heart of this new generation of mobility platforms. User and developments tools are designed to appeal both to companies with little or no IT expertise and to larger organisations with more complex requirements. 

The increased efficiencies, competitiveness and reduced IT costs that the cloud can deliver have widespread appeal. For larger organisations, on-demand services can help smooth peaks and troughs in the business cycle. Services can be ramped up and down as business needs change.

MEs can start with the simple stuff and graduate to more complex analytics and benchmarking. Deployments can be faster, speeding up ROI, and a pay-per-user subscription model eliminates up-front investment.

The days when cloud-based solutions were inferior, cut-down versions of enterprise-class systems are no more. Many web-based solutions offer similar, if identical capability and functionality to on-premise versions, and they are an essential component in delivering easy integration with back-end systems.
Mobility platforms provide the integration between various back office systems and the mobile employee, taking care of what Bouhnick calls “the plumbing” of mobilising business processes.
“Users of IT now demand simplicity,” he says. “The most popular web sites are the ones that are simple for end-users and for developers and administrators. People have become used to everything being just a click away – anything else seems heavy and slow – and the same is true for mobile workers accessing corporate data.”

Alberto Zamora of MEAP provider Moviliser agrees simple solutions are essential. “The processes are often very complex, so the development of the mobile solution should not put another complexity layer on top. Companies should be able to focus on their requirements, their processes, while developing mobile solutions.”

“Mobility software is no longer a monolithic solution for specific worker groups that companies are reluctant to change for four years or longer,” says Bouncik. “Now the demand is for modular solutions and a single platform that can be used to deploy different apps to different groups of workers.”
Web-based mobility platforms have emerged from various specialisations as solution providers strive to provide a one-stop integrated offering. Moviliser is one of a growing number of mobility platform specialists that include Jade, PSI Mobile, Blackbay and CommonTime. Software specialists such as ClickSoftware, Cognito and DA Systems have also developed platforms that offer streamlined, integrated solutions.

“Some transport and logistics companies are on second-generation in-house solutions that they have written themselves,” says David Upton, DA’s managing director. “They may no longer have the in-house expertise to develop those applications, yet face demands from the business for up-to-day solutions such as ePOD, shorter delivery windows and real-time ETAs.”

Mobile device management specialists such as B2M, Soti and Wavelink also now offer solutions that go beyond MDM. B2M, for example, says the focus is now enterprise mobility management (EMM). “Few companies would now consider deploying mobile devices without a policy to help you get them out there and keep them working,” points out B2M. 

CommonTime’s mDesign includes application templates for the most common types of app. ClickSoftware has bundled its templates into its ClickAppStore. DA Systems has just launched a new platform, NXpect, which appeals to drivers as well as online retailers and delivery companies in a collaborative effort to create further optimisation.

“Companies running SAP as well as any other back-end system do have certain requirements for mobile applications especially in the B2B context and among blue-collar processes,” says Alberto Zamora. “Mobile solutions need to be robust, easy to handle for the users, centrally manageable and uploadable over the back-end system and low in cost. Furthermore, it is important that you integrate different processes that you have in your company – maybe even with different back ends – into one solution or app.”

Application management

The demand for simple solutions is changing expectations about deployments, says Bouncik. “People are no longer prepared to accept a six-month delay for a modification to a process – they expect it within a month.” This demand for a shorter time-frame has resulted in companies deploying smaller projects, but more frequently, he reports. “Rather than full mobility implementation, many companies are looking for a quick deployment to fix a specific issue or add functionality for a small user group.”

Some of this time-compression is a result of the consumerisation of IT. We all live in the world of the app, downloading whatever takes our fancy. IT professionals want greater control over non-company applications running on corporately-owned devices (and corporate data on employee-owned devices), but don’t want to sacrifice any of the productivity benefits these apps give their employees or increasing the risk of a security breach. Mobility management providers now talk about “wrapping” apps to protect against this, or have dual private and user profiles on a device.

The increase in smartphone use in some logistics and field service operations both for in-house solutions and to integrate third-party contractors means managers in these sectors will need to address this issue.

MEAPS are defined by Gartner as a development and deployment framework that provides tools for client, server and middleware for mobile that is capable of targeting any mobile application on many devices and offers multichannel and offline capabilities.

The great advantage of MEAPS is that it allows companies to deploy applications on a single platform. The platform does all the behind-the-scenes work, allowing apps to run on various devices and to make use of various device functions. There is no need to compromise on device choice because of operating system, or suitability to run legacy software. Some mobility platforms, including MDM (mobile device management) platforms, also offer this level of functionality.

Managers can authorise which apps mobile staff can access, customising permissions for various groups and levels of mobile workers. Some of this functionality is available from mobility platform providers, of course.

MEAPS play a crucial role in the “write-once deploy many-times” approach. Gone are the days have having to re-code all the applications to run on different devices; the platform takes care of all that.

HTML5 versus native

Most platforms use a version of HTML, the hypertext mark-up language, alongside JavaScript. It’s this mix of software development tools that enables the platforms to offer both integration with legacy apps and the write-once, deploy-many-times capability. 

Previous versions of HTML required add-on technology such as Silverlight or Flash Player or rich browser-based apps, but HTML5 allows developers to build more robust stand-alone apps using HTML5 alone.

“HTML5 standards are still evolving, but this is already a mature technology with a stable heart and with great potential to transform how enterprises develop and deploy apps to their mobile workers,” enthuses Bouhnick. He says now that companies have established a web presence for their own activities, they are more comfortable with using it to mobilise it their business processes, rather than rely on native apps on devices developed with JavaScript.

The ability to work offline when outside wireless coverage (one reason many companies preferred the security of native apps on devices) is also available with HTML5, with sychronising being handled automatically when the device is next in communications range.

Another advantage of HTML5 for Click is that resolves user interface issues, say Bouhnick. “User interface is the painful part of any native OS, and HTML5 can help.

“Any app will have the same look and feel regardless of device or OS, but with a responsive UI, while some app elements don’t change, you can change the way elements are displayed to make optimum use of device features.

For example, by adding a sidebar to the display when it appears on a large tablet screen but not on a device with a 3.5in screen, you can improve the UI experience.”

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© Spice Court Publications Ltd 2017
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