SAP is on the road at the moment, rolling forward on its World Tour and looking to break new frontiers. One of the notable themes at its London event last week was mobile computing and how this remains an uncrossed frontier as far as enterprise applications are concerned.
Business users and consumers alike are melded to their mobile devices, and as the scope of smartphones increases and flexible work practices expand, this relationship will get closer still. However, enterprise applications have still not made the leap from desktop to mobile. A few brave sales and service functions have traversed the frontier, but the rest are trailing behind.
Changes in working and communication patterns highlight the need to bring enterprise applications to mobile devices. The speed at which business needs to be conducted also points to the need to complement static devices like desktops and even notebooks with multifunction smartphones that allow realtime and anytime access to enterprise resources, and do it natively, instead of having to rely on data synchronisation.
Although there are technical hurdles which should not be taken lightly, such as selecting and implementing a mobile infrastructure and creating the integration between mobile and traditional application infrastructures, the other big issue is understanding how to present enterprise data on mobile devices. This is not simply a case of replicating specific enterprise functions within the context of a small screen, or making all enterprise application functionality accessible via a mobile device, but getting to grips with the type of experience users expect. Key to this is identifying what would constitute a useful type of interaction. This demands a change in mindset.
Providing access to all enterprise application processes, tasks, data, and other content would seem to be a natural goal, but would not represent appropriate use of mobile devices because this approach may fail to take into account the user experience.
Cutting down access to a limited number of functions (effectively creating a series of point applications, which is generally the situation with the current generation of mobile enterprise applications) fails to maximise the value from the enterprise application.
The requirement is for a strategic approach to mobile applications that would allow users access to cross-function data and processes, but without being burdened by a hierarchical application.
On the consumer side, there is also untapped potential to use mobile devices to connect with customers, providing them with self-service customer support for example, in the same way the web is routinely used for customer self-service, or using mobile coupons as part of marketing and sales initiatives. If an organisation wants to be 'customer-centric' it cannot afford to virtually ignore the channel and device that all its customer have: the mobile phone.
SAP has noted how well different functions are being integrated on mobile devices and is looking at ways to bring these functions to enterprise applications running natively on mobile devices to present a seamless user experience.
It is working with Research in Motion for advice on how to use consumer-type technology and interactions in a business environment, on the grounds that RIM's knowledge and thinking processes are very different to SAP's, and it has a good grasp of how users interact with mobile and consumer equipment.
As for RIM, SAP says it has an excellent understanding of consumer-type interactions, but less insight into the way business people work and the requirements for applications that are used in business. By working together they are hoping to break through the frontier and start delivering useful enterprise applications on mobile devices, with a user experience to match.
The goal is to find a way of surfacing relevant content and processes from any part of an enterprise application, on a mobile device without compromising on the breadth of access or the user experience. The dream is of making customer data, accounts data, workflow, approval processes, alerts, and business intelligence, and so on as ubiquitous on the mobile as e-mail is.
At the moment traditional software vendors are just in the exploratory phases, but collaboration with mobile experts could bring new thinking to the challenge and allow that mobile frontier to be left behind.