The Value of App/OS integration to an Enterprise
I mentioned in my previous post, it seems that a lot of organizations are thinking more lately about tablet development than smartphone development. Many customers have also told us that they’re looking seriously at Windows 8; that got me thinking about what makes Windows 8 interesting to those organizations. Now, many of you immediately started thinking about the enterprise features of Windows 8 such as the ones described in Eric Lai’s post on the subject (http://www.zdnet.com/in-the-enterprise-windows-8-tablets-may-zoom-past-pcs-7000006456). On the other hand, I’m a developer, so I immediately started thinking of the value Windows 8 tablets had in the enterprise and that got me thinking about how well applications can interact with the device OS (whether it be smartphones or tablets) and what that means to enterprise users. Of course, SAP has already announced six enterprise applications for Windows 8 – you can read more information about those apps here: http://www.zdnet.com/sap-to-offer-six-enterprise-enhanced-windows-8-apps-7000007310/.
It seems to me that one of the ways an organization increases the benefit of a mobile device is through the ways it exposes important business data to the mobile user and the ways that the mobile user can interact with the data.
The market has already shown us that the iOS device is mighty popular with enterprises and Apple, through its periodic updates to the OS, has been adding features for the enterprise over time. They’ve still got a while to go to catch up with the enterprise features of the BlackBerry platform, but the value is definitely there. iOS device users have their mail, calendar, and (finally) tasks on their device, plus the personal and any enterprise applications they need. What the OS doesn’t have though is app to app or app to OS integration that could make the device more useful to enterprise users. Apple has (for security and performance reasons I imagine) deliberately restricted how an application can interact with other apps on the device and there’s very little (if any) visible integration with the device OS. iOS applications can pass data to other applications, but seamless integration is…limited.
From early on, the Android OS has supported widgets, which allow a developer to create an application that renders data directly on the device’s home screen. We have seen examples of this in the weather widget found on any Android phone or the Facebook widget that shows the latest entries on a user’s timeline. For the enterprise user, there’s real value in using this concept to render enterprise data as well. Imagine an enterprise sales application that exposes a portion of the application’s UI as a widget; the widget could change the background color and/or the content rendered within the widget’s UI depending on user-specified criteria. When certain customers report critical issues, change the background to yellow (or red as appropriate) and list the customer names or project names for example, allowing the user to immediately understand the status of the customer(s) without even opening the app. The user unlocks the device and can immediately see what’s going on – clicking on the widget to open the app and viewing the details.
The BlackBerry platform has had something like this for many years – using the push capabilities of the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) or even the PushMarks service for BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS) a back-end application can send data to a mobile application running on the BlackBerry and change the application’s icon to indicate some sort of status. Developers would build apps that changed the icon color to indicate status (yellow for warning, or red for critical for example) or even add some sort of numerical indicator to the icon. The user looks at the device screen and immediately knows that something needs their attention.
BlackBerry 10 is supposed to make inter-app integration mainstream through its BlackBerry Hub as described in Paul Mah’s recent article (http://www.zdnet.com/blackberry-10-is-about-integration-usability-7000008202/). I’m still waiting for a chance to play with this feature, but with RIM’s multi-threaded OS (where unlike iOS, apps are encouraged to work in the background) and the Hub, the user simply swipes to see the notifications area and all of the things that require his or her attention are listed there. It will be easy then for an enterprise application to notify the user any time critical data is available – right in the place where the user will already be going to for email, calendar notices and more. Knowing the BlackBerry developer community like I do, I’m sure a lot of developers, especially enterprise developers, are going to make good use of this integration.
On Android, the widget is the app – what you create is the application UI and the OS allows you to display the app on a subset of the device’s screen (attached to one of the home screen pages available to users). With Windows 8, this is different and likely more useful to enterprise developers. In Windows 8 applications, Microsoft has exposed an API which allows a developer to write data to the application’s tile on the device’s home screen. On Windows 8, tiles are application ‘icons’ that can be dragged around and positioned on the device home screen. Tiles can be big or they can be small, and the user can put them wherever she or he wants. Developers can use this capability to expose critical data from the application directly to the home screen – without needing a separate widget UI. In this example, the application’s tile tells the user about what’s going on within the application.
There’s risk in this of course, password protected enterprise applications protect the contents within an application – and exposing app data through the tile exposes data around that protection. Any enterprise device should have a password assigned to it anyway – most IT departments have figured that out by now, right?