Mission-Critical Mobile Applications – Yipes!

In one day I can use my iPhone to deposit a check, board a Delta flight, navigate in my rental car, pay for my latte at Starbucks, read a credit card, and access my online medical records.  I can also use it to play the latest free version of Angry Birds, Tweet my 10 chapter Tweet novel, and, if I am not careful, drop it (the phone, not the novel) in the toilet.

IDC’s current forecast is for nearly 500 million smart phones to ship worldwide this year, more than 600 million next year.   By the end of the year there will be nearly a billion of these devils in use.  They are like tribbles (http://www.startrek.com/database_article/trouble-with-tribbles-the) – attractive by themselves but a menace in the aggregate.  We could be talking about a trillion accesses to enterprise information systems a year.

Are you ready?  Each of IDC’s six vertical market practices – from energy to banking – talks of mobile applications as a next frontier.  Patient monitoring, fleet management, smart grid, funds transfer, point-of-sale, emergency services, and so on.  Each has a unique set of challenges.

For instance, if you are a bank, do you offer online banking through a Web site or an app?  How do you keep the app updated and backward compatible?  How many devices does it work on?  How do you handle tech support?  Do you charge for the app and service?  What do you do when you have to introduce multifactor authentication?

If you are a health care provider, how do you support the doctors and health care professionals clamoring to use their mobile devices to track patient progress and access and update medical records – given the security and management issues?   Vendors are starting to offer bidirectional access to electronic medical records and point-of-care mobile devices, but which vendor do you chose?  Will they be around in five years?  Meanwhile, early returns show improved patient outcomes from real-time access to patient data from mobile devices, so the impetus for adoption is there.

We have talked about the problems with mobile devices before (see my March 7 post The Commingled Data Tangle and May 23’s The IPad: Tabula Rasa or Tabula Cura) – security, management, personal versus business use, ownership, and so on.  But the use in mission-critical applications – ones smack dab in the middle of the value chain – adds an order of magnitude to the penalties for badly managed implementations.

Yet, in a study IDC conducted for Unisys last year (http://www.unisys.com/unisys/ri/topic/researchtopicdetail.jsp?id=700004) on the consumerization of IT, we found that already more than 10% of information workers used smart phones to access enterprise applications, with younger workers coming in at twice that.  Between the 500 million smart phones and another 50 million iPad-like devices shipping this year that percent will hit better than 25% this year.  That’s your employees and your customers.

The dilemma here is subtle.  You need to support these new applications – the user departments will drag you to them if you don’t lead the way – but you need to do it in an orderly fashion.  We are just exiting the phase where mobile devices are used for traditional tethered applications – except they are mobile – and entering the phase where they do things that can’t be done without being mobile.  An iPhone can do what an in-dash GPS system can do, but you can’t rip the in-dash system out to use when you are in your spouse’s car.

Supporting this next level of mobile usage isn’t just a matter of cranking down on security, device management, and application support because your traditional applications now need to support these scary devices.  It means choosing and developing whole new applications, delivering them in a new way, integrating them with enterprise information architectures, and thinking out the policy and legal issues long before deployment.  It may also mean working with a lot of new and untested companies.

In fact, if the number of smart phones and tablets in your organization doubles this year, the number of ways they will need to interface with your mission-critical functions will quadruple, and the time you need to spend dealing with them will more than quadruple.  Bet on it.

By the way, I am told that if you drop your iPhone in the toilet the old practice of leaving it in a bowl of rice overnight might not work.  It might take three days.

The Dilemma:   User organizations will soon be clamoring to use mobile devices and tablets in ways central to the organization’s mission, and IT will need to both enthusiastically support them and yet also create an orderly process for implementation and support.

What Might Work:  Go to the heart of the matter.  With your business colleagues, investigate at least one mission critical mobile application – patient point-of-care, fleet management, mobile payments, and so on depending on your industry.  Test it with a small group of motivated users.  Once you are in test mode you can slow down and roll-out full implementation much more slowly.


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