Thoughts on the mobile enterprise #7: Apps for employees

In a series of posts I will elaborate on how enterprise applications can embrace mobile devices.

In part 6 we took a look at mobile apps for end users. In this post I will turn to apps that are used by employees. Such apps can be divided into several broad groups, too.

Apps that replace old user interfaces

Imagine this scenario: you have an enterprise application that has been in production for several years. The user interface is implemented as a Java-based rich client. Now, the company decides to give the application a fresh new look. One reason for this may be that management has decided to replace the pcs in the offices with thin clients and to establish a virtual desktop infrastructure. As the execution environment for user interfaces is merely virtualized, the old Java-based user interface could be used further. However, depending on the number of computers to be replaced, the server-side infrastructure needs to be quite powerful.

If a change of technology is inevitable (because it is requested), today new user interfaces are usually implemented as web applications. The underlying reasoning is that such apps will easily run on mobile devices. As you shall see in the course of this series of blogposts, this may be a misconception. To be able to switch the ui technology stack, the corresponding parts of the application must be clearly separated. As I have discussed earlier, this is by definition true for rich clients - although this says nothing about the quality or usefulness of the provided interface. Current Web-based apps, on the other hand, unfortunately tend to be a melting pot with fuzzy, difficult to separate layers. Then, changing the user interface, inevitably means refactoring the whole application. Let me be clear about this: this is no flaw the involved technologies per se, but stems from poor application design.

There may be a more substantial change of technology on its way than moving from traditional pcs to virtualized, centralized desktops. Until recently, touch enabled devices without mice and keyboards had form factors way too small to be used in the office. This might change, as the latest tablet generation offers display sizes up to 15 inch. I expect this development to continue. At the time of writing Microsoft's Surface Hub is a (forgive me) fascinating and exciting curiosity. Smaller-sized versions might well become the office device of the future.

To sum up, apps that replace old uses interfaces are the new, friendly face of the host. Devices that display them are seldom moved, are part of the company intranet and are connected to the backend over high speed networks. If this is done by wire or over the air is a matter of taste (driven, perhaps, by costs and available infrastructure).

Special-purpose apps for in-house use

Special-purpose apps for in-house use form a niche group. The devices that display the user interface are highly portable, usually equipped with sensors or scanners to collect data, and may even have a small printer to produce labels. They are part of the company intranet and exchange data with their backend frequently. Depending on the purpose, the device may have a touch screen, or an old fashioned keyboard that can withstand rough working conditions.

If a special-purpose device is used, the technology stack for the user interface may be restricted by the operating system or the vendor. If the system is even more closed, the only possible connection to an enterprise app may be a (hopefully documented) remote interface, or direct access to the system's database.

Examples include inventory systems to support facility management, measurement of environmental conditions and warehouse management.

Apps for off-site employees

This category subsumes apps for employees who mostly work off-site, for example sales representatives, insurance broker or traveling salesmen. We can distinguish between

  • apps that work with customer data
  • apps that operate on company-related data
  • apps that do something

Customer data is related to, well, customers. This may include addresses, contracts data, income, debts, age, children and other personal information. Such data is highly sensitive. The mobile enterprise application must make everything possible to protect it. As you shall see later, this includes the client, the transport route as well as the backend.

Company-related data may refer to products the organization is selling, but also employees contacts data, sales figures, statistics, organizational charts and assets lists. Such data is highly sensitive, too. Therefore the mobile enterprise application must make everything possible to protect them.

You may argue that stressing those security aspects seems a little over the top as they are obvious. Keep in mind that most mobile enterprise apps are not built from scratch. Instead they evolve from a system that has been running for years. Even if a proper security analysis has been done when the application went online, network topology, app-server configurations and firewall settings have likely changed since then. Besides, if the route from client to the backend used to be secure, some security measures may not be in place just because they have not been necessary. I will talk more about security later.

The choice of ui technology should be based upon the focus of the app. If a considerable amount of data has to be entered or edited, rich client-like frameworks must be considered. If the app is used to visualize content (animations, photo-realistic renderings, charts), possibly handing the device over to the customer, this requires a slick and polished visual appearance.

I will conclude this post with apps that do something. They may collect some sort of telemetry or sensor data, scan barcodes, print labels or program process control computers. Hence, they are similar to special-purpose apps for in-house use, besides that they are used off-site. So what I have said above applies here, too:

  • the devices that display the user interface are highly portable
  • depending on the purpose, the device may have a touch screen, or an old fashioned keyboard that can withstand rough working conditions

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