Mobile app development moves beyond CRM, but slowly

Tiny screens, lack of demand hamper mobile development

Everywhere you go these days, people are using BlackBerries to check e-mail and set up appointments. But the march toward everyday use of more complex business applications on smartphones is going slowly at best.

Mobile CRM tools for salespeople have been on the market for several years, and more recently IBM's Cognos division has adapted business intelligence tools for handheld devices. The innovative form factor of the iPhone is also spurring vendors to think about how applications can be shrunk down for workers on the go.

But the mobile application market is still being held back by small screen sizes and limitations in storage, memory and computing power, according to analysts and vendors. Some applications are simply too complex for today's mobile devices.

"A lot of business applications that are done in house have to do with analytics," notes Saswato Das, a spokesman for SAP's business applications unit. "If you want to run something fairly sophisticated that requires a lot of memory, that requires a lot of computing power, a handheld today is not the best place to do it."

SAP, therefore, focuses most of its mobile efforts on providing customer relationship management (CRM) tools to sales and marketing people, he says.

Companies like Oracle and IBM are also optimizing their applications for smartphones to satisfy demand from an increasingly mobile workforce. A product called PCNow made by Cisco's WebEx division even gives smartphone users remote access to their PCs, allowing them to view files and folders from their hard drives and search their desktop computers, all from a BlackBerry or similar device.

Moving beyond CRM

But how much work do users really want to do on a BlackBerry? Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney thinks most workers don't want their smartphones to be like a second computer. Instead, they want just enough functionality to get by when they are out of the office. Dulaney sees GPS systems as a natural fit for mobile phones. But tasks have to be important and time-sensitive to make people accept the inconvenience of a small keyboard and screen, he says.

If you were presented a mobile phone and laptop side by side, and both had the same capabilities, "you would never use the phone," Dulaney says. "If people can wait until they get home or wait till they get back to their office, they will. The transactions put on the phone have to have some sense of time-criticality."

Perhaps Apple's iPhone will do for the business market what it has done for consumers, but it hasn't happened yet. Vendors say they are testing applications on the iPhone, because they want to be ready in case businesses decide to replace their keypad-based devices with the iPhone and its touch screen.

A vendor called Etelos made its CRM platform available on the iPhone last year. SAP demonstrated a CRM application on the iPhone in December, but for now Das says the BlackBerry is "the king of the enterprise" and thus SAP's main focus.

"We would love to do the iPhone," says IBM Cognos product manager Anastasia Valentine. But "we haven't seen the enterprise demand for the iPhone yet."

Meanwhile, Cognos is pushing the mobile application market beyond CRM tools with IBM Cognos 8 Go! Mobile, a business intelligence tool for BlackBerries and phones based on the Windows Mobile operating system. Cognos Mobile has been available for more than a year.

Making a desktop application useful on a mobile device is challenging, Valentine notes. Some functionality must be stripped away in the mobile version, while new tools must be added to make applications easy to use.

With Cognos for mobile, product developers added interactivity elements, such as the ability to drill down on specific objects, hide and show columns and scroll through rows. The idea is to change the appearance of reports to make them easily readable on a 2-inch screen. Smartphone users can have scheduled analytical reports run automatically and delivered to the mobile device, though they still may prefer to access the reports on their desktops, Valentine notes. PDF-based printing is among the features that aren't available on the smartphone version of Cognos.

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Jon Brodkin

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