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12 Criteria for Evaluating Off-the-Shelf Apps vs. Custom Mobile Solutions

In Q4 of 2013, research firm IDC predicts that tablet devices will reach 84.1M units shipped, while PC shipments will be at 83.1M. This means, Mobile devices.jpgthat for the first time, shipments of tablets will outnumber those of PCs. This just reinforces the predictions that users will prefer and continue to make a shift in device choice and focus on lighter, more mobile options.

With those stats, it is easy to see why enterprises are continuing to move in the same direction are building mobile workforces. As this shift occurs, enterprises are facing choices about how to best build and deploy solutions. One of the choices they may encounter is the option to use off-the-shelf apps, custom mobile solutions, or a hybrid option.

This is a big decision and since the final decision requires a financial and time commitment, the options must be fully considered to ensure the right decision is made. After considering business objectives, user needs and options, it is key to understand the characteristics of the options to make an informed decision.

Here are six of the 12 characteristics,  which will aid in evaluating and understanding the options.

Functionality: This refers to what the app needs to do. Consider the question, “which tasks does the app enable users to accomplish?” The second part is asking, “Is an organization better served by ‘buying’ and deploying an off-the-shelf mobile app or building a custom mobile solution?” Comparing the functionality of available apps against requirements – including those of users, the business unit and IT – is a logical starting point to determine which alternative is best in a particular situation.

User Interface (UI): The UI can be the most important factor affecting users’ experience and their assessment of efficacy. While most off-the-shelf apps offer a standardized UI, some also permit organizations and users to make adjustments to suit individual preferences. With a custom mobile solution, the UI can be tailored, tested and validated to ensure that it matches exactly what the enterprise’s users need. Given the impact on usability and productivity, the ability to optimize the UI for an enterprise’s users could justify the development of a custom mobile solution.

Device/iOs compatibility: Off-the-shelf apps are developed for particular platforms, such as iOS, while others are compatible cross-platform. With new devices, especially tablets, and newer versions of operating systems continually being introduced, one of the key questions is whether an off-the-shelf app will support the mix of devices and platforms in an enterprise over time. Enterprises are well advised to check the compatibility of off-the-shelf applications with various mobile operating systems and devices – or at least their ability to support the most critical features (UI, security and support) across platforms. Similar choices must be made when developing a custom mobile solution – with custom development, however, the enterprise can specify which platforms the app must run on and decide how best to maintain the app over time as operating systems, APIs and capabilities evolve.

Integration with backend systems: Often the most complex requirement in deploying mobile solutions for enterprise workers is integrating with backend systems and databases. Naturally, custom mobile solutions can be tightly coupled with enterprise systems while off-the-shelf apps may require either middleware or custom installations to make them work. Enterprises developing applications that require tight integration with backend systems will generally find that custom mobile solutions are best suited.

Performance: Within a particular category, the performance of mobile apps on various dimensions – speed, resource intensity, etc. – can vary. Users have a low tolerance for mobile applications that aren’t fast, fluid, and functional. Another critical aspect is the impact of a solution on mobile device battery life, which is affected by how mobile solutions manage network access, frequency, and data transmission. Apps and solutions that drain battery life are frustrating and likely to be ignored by users. With custom mobile solutions, targeted levels of performance under various use cases and conditions are developed in concert with decision makers and users. Developers then design, measure, and optimize the solution’s performance to meet the targets.

Scalability: Mobile solutions must be capable of handling demands that can vary and spike unexpectedly. If thousands or even tens of thousands of employees from around the world are using a mobile solution and uploading and querying in real-time data that is distributed across multiple databases, the app and supporting systems need to be capable of handling the load. The response must stay consistent and app must not crash. Scalability ensures that performance levels are maintained under a variety of demanding loads and conditions. While not as immediately apparent as other criteria, scalability – especially with off-the-shelf apps – can vary widely, potentially leaving enterprises and users vulnerable in mission critical situations.

For details on the other six characteristics – Support, Security, Upgrades, Time to Develop, Time to Deploy, and Cost – please refer to the Mobilizing the Enterprise with Off-the-Shelf Apps and Custom Mobile Solutions whitepaper, which explores these options in greater detail. Also, please see more information about how the SAP Services organization supports enterprise mobility solutions here.

Mobilize Criteria Solution Comparison.png

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