What is the source of innovation in business? Gartner says it's not the IT department. In the opinion of the trusted consulting firm, IT generally "responds, rather than initiates." But if your technology team did happen to come out with a great new mobile app today, could your company be using it tomorrow?
Peter Price is a serial technology entrepreneur, and Los Angeles-based Webalo is his fifth technology company. The roots of Webalo began with Peter's vision and reflections on the question of how users would interact with applications and data as the web transitions from a primarily text-based environment to an increasingly real-time, transaction-centric environment.
He was interested in how people would interact with data and carry out virtual transactions, as well as how (bring your own) devices would necessarily change as a result, in a perpetually connected environment. The notion of the cloud was a little different at that time, but the general direction was there.
On this point Peter says, "I've been in companies that made some lousy predictions, but this was actually a pretty good one. What happened on the way though, was that around 2000 and 2001 there was a drying up of investments and infrastructure. It was always around that last mile to the user, which required that the devices, operating systems, security and networks all be in place, and that was no small investment. 9/11 put the kibosh on the way early-stage technologists could develop their products. So fast forward to 2006 and 2007, and you see the market starting to emerge again. Now that it has regained some of the momentum it lost, BYOD is exploding and we find ourselves in the middle of a renewed fascination with the capabilities and value of mobile devices."
For most companies, it's no longer possible to ignore device portability. The question is the speed of adoption and transition. Ironically speed is one of the things mobility offers.1.) Jeff: For some businesses like transportation and logistics, mobile applications are a given because of the nature of the services they provide. What is the primary sticking point for companies where connectivity is not as central to the core business? Peter: What's interesting is the way control mobility has developed in those types of companies. Take a company like Fedex, where the idea of control mobility goes far beyond general business mobility. Other examples would be Hertz or Avis where the rep checks in your car with a recognized device connected to their backend system. These companies are building mobile applications because without them, the business wouldn't exist, at least not in the same form.
From a technology standpoint, software engineers have been building these apps within the context of control mobility. These are large-scale enterprises with traditional IT departments, and it takes a long time and costs a lot of money. What's happened now is the need for more than business mobility, and more than just the long tail of applications within these companies.
If it's not already true, it will be soon that all users are mobile. Along with that comes everyone's preference for their tablet or laptop or smartphone, and each of those comes with different application requirements. That can mean hundreds or even thousands of new requirements. If you have to use the traditional IT software development process every time you develop an application, it just doesn't scale. Volkswagen is a good example of effectively handling control-mobility applications within a large-scale IT department. The CIO made the observation early on that with the numbers of users they require, they will need to build them at pennies apiece. It's the complexity of creating new enterprise-level applications using the traditional process that has been the sticking point up to now, as well as to get existing enterprise system apps and data into a portable format.2.) Jeff: Is there a significant difference in the way enterprises need to address tablets or hybrids as opposed to smartphones? Peter: The biggest difference is the context of any device type related to the cloud, and of the types of companies that are using the cloud. That's changing the infrastructure at every level. We're just at the beginning of a re-architecting of systems, networks, data and applications to get the biggest advantage out of cloud technology. From a user perspective, the cloud is going to fundamentally change the way we work, because perpetual connection drives a very different working style. Users expect what they need, when they need it, and with their own specific requirements. If you can deliver that, there's a huge productivity impact.
Up to now, it's been about one-to-many experiences that require us to use systems in a way that works for us. The cloud and the always-on mobile environment allow access to information with tools that can deliver much greater productivity. That means we now need to reorganize to meet those opportunities and expectations, both in terms of enterprise applications and data, and the way we access them. I say reorganize because ideally this doesn't require a complete restart, but it does call for reorganization, specifically to connect our existing enterprise applications to a mobile, cloud-based environment.3.) Jeff: In reference to that comparison, TechJournal reported that early last year the minutes-per-day use of mobile devices pulled ahead of desktop use for the first time. Do you see mobile apps superseding the legacy apps they copy? Peter: The way it has come about is that the mobile device has become preferred, and that in itself is going to drive those statistics. Even at my desk I'm sitting at my computer with my phone on one side of me and my tablet on the other. So are enterprise-level apps still more important on the desktop than on the laptop? For e-mail, yes. But for many users, interacting with a purchase-order system, or approving and entering expenses, checking inventories, looking up customer records, analyzing daily sales reports, those are things that have been challenging for enterprises. There is no doubt the mobile apps are becoming increasingly important. They aren't more important yet, but as enterprises are more capable of managing their data integrity and security, you will see even more potential for getting at those data resources, and what has come to be called big data, no matter where you are. 4.) Jeff: There are some things like looking up a hashtag that we wouldn't necessarily take the time for at a desktop computer, but we might spend a minute on while we're sitting at a train crossing or in a parking lot. Have you come across peripheral benefits for the mobile enterprise in addition to the ones you intentionally pursue? Peter: If you look at mobile devices as a whole and how they really took hold in the enterprise, RIM had a lot to do with it. When we got up in the morning, the Blackberry got us, instead of doing something sensible, like exercising or having breakfast, to start in on our e-mails. That's a large part of why companies were buying them by the thousands. The interesting direction this has taken now though is in the areas of community and immediacy and personalization. This device you have with you all the time is a live connection to all the things in the world you need to be connected to. That constant connectivity is what will have the next huge impact on the enterprise, and it's only just starting to realize it. At every level of the business, you have employees and partners who are connected to information and to each other.
A couple years ago, I met with the CIO of Tesco, which is a global retailer on the order of Wal-mart. He had just deployed about 50,000 devices in a company they had just acquired. A lot of the discussion was around the shop-floor applications and C-level management getting their e-mails on these devices, and at the time he said, "That is nothing compared to what's coming in a few years time, when I'm connected to all 500,000 employees around the world on the devices they already have in their pockets, which is rapidly becoming a small, but powerful computer." The creation of that always-on community has a great benefit for the enterprise, and also for the employees to have greater flexibility in doing their job more in the way they want to do it.5.) Jeff: Even in businesses that are not historically technology-centric like home improvement for example, there is competition to keep up in the development of mobile apps because of the way people are buying things and market expectations. iPhone apps seem to be updated routinely every few days. Does use of cloud technology have a similar effect for software updates in the enterprise? Peter: For a company like ours, cloud is absolutely driving that perpetual beta attitude. You can download and install within your firewall in a virtual cloud environment, whether it's one you manage or one that is managed by a third party. Either way, what this does is drive a seamless improvement of functionality in what is delivered to the business, and in turn what they deliver to their users. There's not this dramatic rollout event of the new software version that there was in the past.
Just this week, we've done two service updates to improve data interaction which would have involved that monolithic planning and execution of the rollout in the past. So this is really waking up the enterprise software industry, grabbing it by the shoulders and giving it a good shake. It continues to amaze me. I'm old enough to remember when IT told me where to sit and they gave me a device to use. Now I can go to a store or online, choose my own device, connect to the enterprise the next day and start using it. That's what is driving IT to respond rather than initiate.6.) Jeff: How does the cloud specifically affect the costs of device management? Peter: One of the main issues is in mobility's alignment to consumer thinking over traditional business and IT thinking; with a consumer-driven model rather than a long cycle of requirements analysis, specs, software analysis, particularly when you need to make it scale to all the users you now have. If you put this on a scale where on one end anyone can do it, and on the other it requires a highly-skilled Java programmer, we're past the halfway point to where we want to be. These apps can be deployed in minutes and hours rather than the past complexity of the software development process. If you're going to deliver the volume and variety of applications to all these different user types, device types and heterogeneous businesses, you have to provide a realistic way to do this. 7.) Jeff: There have been some news items lately on high-profile e-mail accounts and other cases of what one would expect to be secure accounts hacked, one by correctly guessing the word "popcorn," for example. What are the good, bad and ugly for security impact in more people using mobile devices in the enterprise? Peter: When it comes down to it, this is the number one decision point for most companies in adopting a service right now. Wells Fargo is a good customer of ours, and of course a company like that has to be concerned about its data, and they spend a lot of time architecting a secure environment. It's not rocket science, but large enterprises have devoted a great deal of attention to it, and the weak points crop up when you don't enforce your password and other security measures. Mobility is just an extension of that. We invest a lot of time ensuring that what we do is an extension of the existing security protocols and procedures. We don't look for new ways. Every time you do something new, you open yourself up to potential for problems. If the customer already has effective ways of handling sign-ons, usernames, passwords and device management systems they've developed over the last decade, all of that existing security structure should just extend out into the mobile world.
Once you achieve that, keep in mind you are transmitting data and displaying it on an additional device. For example, we work with the National Health Service in the UK, which has all kinds of additional requirements related to how data can be persisted or not on devices. There are choices to make depending on the type of organization you are and the type of information you handle, as well as industry and government regulations. So you may need to include additional security and encryption in specific situations, but again the goal is to extend what you've got into a new way of interacting with the data. New technologies like fingerprint or facial recognition may come to be a new standard, but mobility has to primarily be able to conform to current enterprise needs and not create an additional burden.8.) Jeff: There are some collaborative groups on LinkedIn with lively discussions around portability. Do you see objective value in this, or are we looking at a lot of sales pitches? Peter: I look at LinkedIn in terms of the way the internet is used in general. From beginning to end, more of any buyer's journey is taking place on the internet for many kinds of decisions and purchases. Businesses will interact with their audiences in the way their customers prefer. In my experience, LinkedIn is good at putting together groups with an interest in focused discussions on a common interest. That value is going to drive the information-gathering and decision-making process.
Even when you do have companies out there promoting a certain direction in the conversation because of the service they offer, that's a part of the buyer's journey. You get to choose whether you continue to pay attention or not. It's still more relevant than being forced to endure all kinds of irrelevant advertising.9.) Jeff: If a single cloud configuration can run an application across Android, iPhone, Blackberry or Windows, and let user demand take platform bias out of the enterprise, it makes it possible to more objectively compare how it actually works on those different devices. Do you see other advantages like this? Peter: Using a cloud interface across a variety of different devices still has the primary advantage of simplicity of adoption. But yes, there is also this feedback loop of user experience across different devices. In some ways, many mobile devices are becoming more similar, while user types are becoming more diverse. For example, in the medical field there are a variety of different doctors, nurses, operations people, hospital porters and management, who all require different types of devices from a tablet to a ruggedized device or a Blackberry. All of that can essentially be done in a single cloud service that satisfies the different requirements across device types from a single backend connection. You're still going to see manufacturers develop features targeted at specific markets, but service that allows you a centralized view across the members of the community. This BYOD phase we're coming into is really what is driving the biggest change in productivity. 10.) Jeff: In the area of other capabilities related to mobile, what do you expect in the next three to five years, for example with near-field communications and digital wallet, or keyboard and slide projection? Peter: I believe we'll see a lot of innovation around how these devices replace what we now think of as hardware-related capabilities. One area where innovation is bound to happen is in data re-organization as it relates to the democratization of analysis and distributing data to all the user communities. There is a fundamental change in the way businesses store and manage data that's going to drive a lot of change. I think you'll see devices that allow Peter Drucker's knowledge workers to create their own enterprise access, get to the data and then complete their own specific transactions. In social media terms, it's what Facebook has done with customized access. The average worker knows how to make himself more productive, and can also provide this constant feedback loop that allows us to perpetually improve our service at the same time.
It's an exciting time to be a part of this business. It hasn't been that long since we experienced driving around looking for a pay phone, and yet it's amazing how quickly we've become accustomed to and dependent on the increasingly dynamic capabilities of mobile devices. User demand continues to stay a step ahead of what the enterprise is able to deliver.
Peter Price is the co-founder and CEO of Webalo, building on his experience with four previous early-stage technology companies and experience in a variety of global software markets since 1984, including Expertech, Inference, Limbex and TriVida. You'll find his latest blog at www.blog.webalo.com.
Jeff Cerny has written interviews with top technology leaders for TechRepublic since 2008. He is also the author of Ten Breakable Habits to Creating a Remarkable Presentation.