Developers have an opportunity to fuel innovation and drive competitive differentiation by embracing changes in the IT landscape. With enterprises grappling with new technologies, practices and platforms simultaneously, that’s easier said than done.

For developers, the questions are which new platforms to develop on, which technologies to adopt and how to respond rapidly to business demands. The answers lie in understanding what the future holds for applications, and charting a course that makes sense for the enterprise.

Jason McNicol, senior analyst at ABI Research, said, “As of right now, productivity apps are in high demand. These could be anything from opening Office documents to annotating changes. Moving forward, it really depends on the enterprise and what industry they are in. In any case, apps will need to be secure and aid cross-collaboration.”

He gave a hospital environment as an example. “Apps will be needed that can transmit highly sensitive data securely and quickly, something that can help facilitate patient look-up. In addition, [there’s] cross-collaboration between doctors, like easy lookup to see who the on-call doctors are and being able to communicate with them in real time. All this facilitates through time within the hospital: getting patients treated quickly and efficiently to be able to treat more patients within the year.”

The design of next-gen apps is going through a fundamental transformation, and an intuitive, highly understandable user experience is now an integral piece of the puzzle. The cross-collaboration between developers and designers has never been more important.

Matt Morgan, a senior director at HP, pointed out that app user experience has always been a “nice-to-have” until now. He said, “Historically, developers really didn’t care so much about user experience. Twenty years ago, apps sat on mainframes and were served up on terminals. User experience was really an extreme nice-to-have of the nice-to-haves.

“If developers could adjust it a little to make it easier for keyboard shortcuts, they did, but they really didn’t go out of their way. Then enterprises moved to a client/server model, and it got a little better. With the advent of the Web, our world took a giant leap forward. For the first time, we had designers helping and the user experience began to be optimized.”

Instantly consumable IT
In the 21st century, the mobile and cloud world has shifted the paradigm of systems engagement. Instead of designing from the system out, systems are designed from the user back. Nothing underscores this more than mobile applications, which users expect to download, install and use in 20 seconds or less.

According to Morgan, “The next generation of applications must function on these terms if they have any hope of surviving. The concept of instantly consumable IT is here to stay.” He added, “The cloud has normalized and created an abstraction layer on the technology stack to the point developers don’t need to think about it. If a developer wants compute, they can go get compute. If they want a LAMP stack, it’s also readily available.

“Gone are the days of buying boxes and handwringing over app server licenses. It’s no different than expecting a dial tone when you pick up the phone. The development stack has now been simplified to the point that it’s created a highly competitive, almost warlike environment among developers building feature-rich, super-easy apps.”

But how simple is it really? The application landscape Morgan laid out looks like inhospitable terrain. “Let’s say I’m a developer, and my biggest market today is for iOS,” he said. “I’m running Xcode, I’m programming in Objective-C, and a framework in Appcelerator. When I’m done, I have an app that runs on Apple. If I want to build something for Google, I have to go get Eclipse. These apps are all designed for individual contribution, not enterprise distribution. This means I have to re-tool for each platform. Today, development environments are not built to enhance the enterprise.

“The enterprise needs apps that run on all platforms with secure, separate distribution from the App Store/Google Play paradigm. In essence, the enterprise needs its own app store.”
App stores: A big deal
ABI Research predicted the amount of large enterprises that will adopt enterprise app stores will grow at double-digit rates through 2018. Globally, large enterprise app-store adoption will grow at 30.4% year over year, with the manufacturing and trade industries commanding the largest share of app deployments. North American and Western European enterprise app store adoption will grow healthily at 20.7% and 21.5%, respectively, but Asia-Pacific will have the most enterprises with enterprise app stores by 2018 growing at 59%.

Morgan shared a recent conversation he had with a large financial customer. “This customer is moving to a ‘single-store stack.’ From their point of view, all assets should be available and installed from their global procurement center instantly with one click. It’s the same for mobile. Enterprise needs to distribute apps to a plethora of devices,” he said.

McNicol and Morgan were in agreement for the most part that enterprise app stores are the best delivery mechanism, being effective, scalable and flexible. McNicol said a key benefit of the enterprise app store is functionality resembling that of Apple’s App Store or Google Play, enticing employees to use it and rate the enterprise apps there. From an IT standpoint, it can set user restrictions based on the employee’s role.

McNicol cited an example: “Let’s assume a manufacturing firm has over 100+ apps in its enterprise app store. Now, the HR employee will only see 20 or so apps based on IT restrictions. This allows additional security measures to be built in so members from other departments do not have access to non-role-based apps. In addition, the user has the freedom to select which apps they prefer, allowing workers to set up their own workflows.”

There are disadvantages to enterprise app stores. While the app store is an easy install, there must be apps in the store; the apps may be expensive to build; and there are no guarantees employees will use them given the current BYOD trend.

Howdy, MAM
If an enterprise has adopted BYOD, McNicol believed it also needs to consider supporting Bring Your Own Application. Enter Mobile Application Management (MAM), which is growing in popularity among enterprises looking to deploy flexible mobile solutions.

“Adoption of BYOD has led to an influx of third-party apps being used to support business functions (e-mail, calendar, Office docs, document storage etc.),” said McNicol. “Instead of blacklisting these apps, enterprises are embracing, securing and deploying third-party apps through the enterprise app store.”

Yet MAM is only one piece of the larger mobile picture. “Some firms may purchase a MAM solution as their first step toward enterprise mobility, but later realize MAM did not solve all of the enterprise needs,” said McNicol. “When building an enterprise app, developers need to consider how the app will interface with other solutions; for instance, will the app have access to all device system files, or only a select few?”
Stumbling blocks
“Security is the issue when discussing the enterprise,” said McNicol. “Any apps accessing enterprise systems or storing enterprise content have to be secure, whether it is via VPN tunnels or data encryption or both.”

HP’s Morgan saw an increasing level of comfort with the public cloud among HP customers who’ve established the right policies. He cautioned that although the number has doubled from 2012, it’s not yet the majority.

It’s all about internal comfort levels. “The cloud is a very scary thing for a company that hasn’t thought about it and can’t see the benefits of putting sensitive data on public servers, physical location unknown,” said Morgan. “CIOs and CSOs need to spend time understanding the true dynamics, and learn how to put up fences to create a secure experience in the public cloud.”

McNicol agreed: “Security fences enable a company to be more proactive than reactive, more risk-based, by looking at the applications themselves and ensuring that they are properly encrypted.”

Other factors affect public cloud security as well. The company must ensure that data will be there whether an employee leaves or stays, wall off data stores from other company stores, and make sure other application data tables aren’t touching theirs.

An additional stumbling block that enterprises face is which technology to build on. McNicol brought up the ongoing debate about whether it’s best to build native, HTML5 or hybrid apps. “There’s no clear winner, so it boils down to preference and enterprise need,” he said.

Enterprise app stores are predominately Android or iOS based. “BlackBerry does have an enterprise app store system, and a few MAM vendors support Windows Phone 8,” said McNicol. “But the reason the focus is being given to Android and iOS is the enterprise market dominance.”

He also saw a big problem with many businesses looking for the “homerun” app, and he cautioned against doing so. “Discussions have floated around trying to create the next Angry Birds that will take the enterprise by storm. Unfortunately, the enterprise market is not the same as the consumer market. Playing games is not the same as creating a personal workflow,” he said.

Lastly, McNicol said legacy systems may be problematic. “Building an app to tie into these systems will take more time to ensure functionality.”

With or without you
Morgan predicted that businesses will become more comfortable living in the public cloud with appropriate security measures in place and an increased comfort with partners. He believed it’s happening whether businesses like it or not.

“Business says it doesn’t want its data distributed on external servers, but workers put it there anyway. Dropbox is a great example. Employees sign up for an account and expense it,” he said.

While not exactly the “field of dreams” IT has hoped for, build any application that slickly increases worker productivity, and they will download it.