Corporate applications and content on smartphones

Smartphones! by Vincent Diamante Creative Commons via Flickr

Barack Obama’s former BlackBerry, and the highly secure clunker it was allegedly replaced with, seem like an apt encapsulation of what enterprises are facing with the glut of new smartphones their users are connecting to corporate networks everywhere.

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, one thing that’s becoming clearer is just how deeply the web, the cloud and the ‘app’ are affecting enterprise computing. Of course, as is always the case with these sorts of seismic shifts, very few people in enterprise IT departments are seeing it coming. Most are content to focus on their in-house application development, their multi-million-dollar enterprise content management solutions and their secure, private and expensive Exchange mail and BlackBerry Enterprise Servers.

Consumers – and we’re all consumers, whether we work for an enterprise or not – are, of course, voting with their dollars and buying the smartest and most desirable smartphones they can afford. Because buying a mobile phone is still primarily a personal choice. Yes, I’m aware that many organizations buy their managers and IT staff BlackBerrys, but the vast majority of us can actually choose which phone we’d like to use.

And that means there’s an increasing number of iPhones, Android devices, Nokias and – starting later this year – many will choose the new Windows Phone 7, just announced and ready to launch in November or December 2010.

Microsoft seems to be focused on following Apple’s model to the fullest extent possible. The recipe goes something like this: Start with a portable media player and add phone capabilities to it. Then, enable application developers to create rich apps and provide them with a closed-system online store. (Silverlight 4 does look like it has great capabilities to at least seriously rival Apple’s Xcode.) Ensure broad interoperability with POP3, IMAP and Exchange Server email, various calendaring standards and make sure it has a decent browser.

One thing that no smartphone manufacturer is seriously including in its product road map is ‘enterprise compatibility’ (other than RIM, perhaps). No particular attention is being paid to enabling employees to securely access enterprise applications and content outside of email and calendaring. This is interesting when compared to even ten years ago, when the future appeared to include devices like the BlackBerry accessing not just email and calendars but also custom, private line of business applications. I distinctly remember thinking the potential was huge for xRM and logistics applications for salespeople, service and field workers.

But that potential was never fully realized. Instead, smartphone software has followed the agile economic pattern of “web 2.0,” and smartphone application developers have been most successful offering single-purpose applications with rich user experiences that are tightly coupled to social networking sites.

And while enterprise IT departments are certainly interested in exploring the potential of offering purpose-built private mobile apps, there are fewer and fewer desirable phone platforms that would allow private applications to be deployed. For a variety of reasons, Apple does not offer an ‘enterprise channel’ in its App Store that would allow corporate IT departments to roll out private applications to limited groups of users. And you don’t really expect them to.

Now that Windows Phone 7 looks set to launch with a closed Marketplace (just like the iPhone), only BlackBerry and Android allow private enterprise applications to be deployed to users’ smartphones with any ease. It seems interesting to me that Microsoft would choose this approach given its deep (and growing) investments in the enterprise. While Windows Phone 7 does include the “Office hub” (an aggregate UI for Microsoft Office documents and certain, limited SharePoint repository contents), enterprise IT departments will likely be disappointed with its lack of customization features. In their current email-centric incarnation, smartphones are in fact exacerbating the enterprise’s compliance problems by contributing to the proliferation of crucial business information being captured in email.

Of course, maybe all this “enterprise” talk is ultimately irrelevant. Enterprise applications are already not able to keep up with what’s commercially available in mobile app stores. And with each passing generation of smartphone, the disconnect between the rich, agile, desirable application functionality of social networking, augmented reality, and voice note-taking client apps and the increasingly insular enterprise applications we are forcing our users to use behind the corporate firewall becomes bigger.

Information workers ultimately won’t stand for it. They are already rearranging their digital lives by using Evernote instead of OneNote, Dropbox instead of SharePoint and Twitter instead of Office Communicator. And smartphones are merely accelerating this trajectory. At this point, CIOs who aren’t thinking about comprehensive, easy, multi-platform mobile access to internal applications aren’t helping their business, they’re hindering it.

2 thoughts on “Corporate applications and content on smartphones”

  1. You have to admit: “[The] Program is available to companies with 500 or more employees and a Dun & Bradstreet number” is a bit lame and restrictive. But yes, it does exist. Which I wasn’t aware of when I wrote this.

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