by Robin Wirz (Guest Contributor), Netzwoche, 15 Feb 2012, (original article in German)

The efficient management of mobile applications poses new challenges for companies. These are often underestimated. In addition to careful planning, technical solutions are increasingly required to prevent costs from exploding.

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With the rapidly increasing number of mobile applications, managing them efficiently is becoming increasingly important. The history of websites shows that the management of a company’s digital appearance can quickly become very expensive. For mobile applications, additional factors come into play and these further drive up the costs of managing apps. How can developers and companies master these new challenges?

With Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, there are already two widely distributed mobile platforms to cater to, on which apps not only have to be browser-optimized (like websites), but be created and maintained completely separately. Within Android, the increasing fragmentation of manufacturer and hardware variants can even make it necessary to create several app versions. With Microsoft’s WP7, there is now another important provider penetrating the market. This variety multiplies not only the costs of the initial development, it also has a significant impact on the management of mobile applications.

The rapid development of mobile operating systems and hardware means that regular updates are needed in order to keep mobile applications as current and attractive as possible. But this is not enough. Most companies also don’t have the option of effectively monitoring their apps, because once they have uploaded them onto the app stores, they no longer have any influence in order to bring changes quickly and directly on the end devices.

Many companies have now recognized the strategic potential of mobile applications and develop comprehensive and high-performance apps which “mobilize” entire business branches. This includes an increasing number of company-internal apps, for example for sales and service teams. In short, mobile applications are becoming increasingly complicated and place entirely new demands on control and security. Of course, this also increases the associated management costs.

With organizational adaptations, such as the centralization of mobile activities, companies are trying to get to grips with app management. It is precisely these central departments who require the correct tools, such as frameworks or comprehensive app management systems, to master the various apps that have been created in the different departments.

Setting the right priorities
In management, it is always taught that basic analysis is central to success control and setting the right priorities. It is all the more surprising then that today, only a few apps are equipped with appropriate analysis functions (similar to a web analysis). The various app stores don’t offer much more than basic data, for example the number of new downloads, and leave app providers in the dark as regards to how often apps are used, which end devices are used, or which content or functions are popular. As a result, it is often the developers’ own preferences that determine priorities when creating or further developing an app, rather than basing the decisions on market and user data.

“Mobilizing” content and keeping it up to date
The most obvious element of app management is the updating of content.While the first apps mostly had fixed content, which could only be updated with an update via an app store, it was primarily the news apps that were the first to break the mold. They load new content from (the same) databases and thus offer content, which is always up-to-date, even though the apps are static in their functionality. To cope with the narrow bandwidth of the mobile reality, data has to be appropriately stored, edited and, where possible, bundled, so that it can be received quickly and reliably on end devices. This data is usually also used in other parts of the company for valuable content. Maintaining this content separately for mobile purposes can lead to considerable costs. The solution lies in an appropriate infrastructure, which communicates with the data sources and systems and also permits mobile-specific editing and transmission of data. This then also creates the basis for efficient content management, whether through integration of existing content management systems or with app-specific content management solutions.

Control access and use securely
With increasing levels of mobile company activities, demands on security are also growing. Effective control of distribution and access has to be guaranteed, in particular for apps with a restricted user base. For company-internal applications on company devices (for example for field sales), there are already distribution possibilities, such as the “Apple Enterprise Agreement”, but these also have their disadvantages. If such apps are then also to be used outside of the company – by partners or customers – usually the only route is via the public App Store.

Passwords protect apps with sensitive content. Although this is relatively secure, mobile applications should also be further controlled, for example in order to block them quickly and easily on end devices if their use has to be prevented with immediate effect. Truly comprehensive app control also opens up new possibilities in terms of selective or personalized use. Not only can different content be displayed based on roles, content variation based on locations (including GPS localization) can also provide additional security. In this way, sensitive data can be linked to certain locations (e.g. a hospital) or it can be made easier to adhere to legal requirements (e.g. cross-border requirements for financial services providers).

Variable distribution also holds advantages and new possibilities for public apps. With the high number of Android devices with substantial differences in OS versions and the hardware, such as different monitor sizes or camera types, device recognition and appropriate adaptation of the app can greatly improve the user experience. Variable delivery also offers an alternative to placing multiple versions of the same app on the Android market. Different versions of an app in the same store are not only confusing for the users, but also mean greater expense in the maintenance for providers.

Bringing updates to the users
As with most software projects, apps are continually improved, expanded and updated. While software updates generally reach the users quickly and directly, things are somewhat more complicated with mobile applications. On the one hand, a new review process has to be passed in Apple’s App Store. On the other hand, the uploading of new versions in the growing number of app stores and the necessary administration already means a considerable cost for the company – for each individual update.

The most frequent causes for updates are “bug fixes”, followed by content updates, new features, interface improvements or even the integration of advertisements. Such updates generally offer little added value to the users. It is therefore not surprising that many of the apps are seldom updated. This, in turn, places demands on the app providers. Not only do they have to continue supporting old app versions, they also don’t have the possibility of introducing important alterations on all devices. The sometimes employed method of simply blocking old versions and forcing the users to download the app again from the app store, usually causes great irritation.

HTML5 can’t (yet) match native apps
What is needed is the possibility to update apps directly on the end devices. This can be done with the correct architecture and corresponding software. Such a solution also has the advantage that the apps can be designed more dynamically. They can offer the user an active experience leading to a more frequent use. The wisdom gained from experience with websites can also be applied here: only regular, useful updates keep the user coming back again and again. A direct updating of apps enables not only a reduction in management costs, but also completely new app concepts.

The challenges in app management described have already led many providers of “native apps”, as they are commonly called in the industry, to search for alternatives. HTML5, which means websites optimized for mobile devices, is often seen as the magic word and the solution to all problems. A cross-platform technology with which the challenges in app development, distribution and updating can supposedly be swept aside.

What sounds very promising in theory shows it weaknesses in practice: use with a weak or no internet connection is difficult to impossible. Not exactly ideal for mobile applications, even in a relatively well connected country like Switzerland. The lack of support for the device functions such as camera, e-mail, compass or the push notification makes many attractive app concepts impossible. In addition, the lack of the sales channel through the powerful app stores can create enormous marketing costs.

HTML5 will develop further, but the technology will not be able to achieve the advantages of native apps in the near future. From experience, it could take several years before the HTML consortium is united on their interpretation of current issues and has implemented the result. This can be seen, for example, in the case of cameras in smartphones. Although these have come with every smart mobile device for some years, the HTML5 support for these is still in its infancy. In supporting functions which are generally established, HTML5 is entirely justified and will be used increasingly for this purpose. Yet in order to stay on the cutting edge of app development, developers cannot avoid native components – especially not if they have to keep up with the rapid developments in hardware and operating systems.

Ideally, one combines HTML5 and native technologies in the apps in order to let them both display their own strengths. The result of this are so-called “hybrid” applications, which combine the cross-platform synergies of HTML with the range of functions and user experience of native apps and also offer new possibilities in app design.

Prepare now or pay a high price
The topic of app management has become hugely important recently. The demands on mobile applications, and with it their complexity and the cost of their maintenance, have increased dramatically. With the success of Android, the support of this platform is now also generally required, which multiplies the cost of development and management.

There is no end in sight. We don’t know what the strategies of the manufacturers will be in the near future. One thing that is certain, that new operating systems, new hardware and new possibilities in general lie ahead of us. One other thing is certain: those who are not already upgrading with the appropriate planning and technology for app management on multiple platforms, will soon be confronted with large costs.

Source of original article: www.netzwoche.ch (in German)

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