How to Support Mobile App Development in Your Organization

As consumers eschew desktops and laptops for smartphones and tablets, organizations are increasingly tasked with developing apps for those mobile devices. These apps can be harder to manage than their Web-based brethren, but agile development methods can help ease the pain.

Spotlight Ticket Management's path to mobile software development is perhaps somewhat smoother than what other enterprises experience.

The 3-year old Calabasas, Calif. company, which helps corporations manage and track the sports tickets they provide to clients, lacks the years of legacy software development that an older company would need to address.

"We are a young company, nimble enough to pivot into mobile without having to turn the Titanic," says Tony Knopp, CEO and co-founder of Spotlight Ticket Management.

That said, the company still needed to work through a mobile transition. Product development started about 18 months ago, with the company tapping outsourced resources for some of the work. More recently, the company has moved to build up its in-house team. In May, the company hired a senior vice president of technology to help with the mobile change.

"We made a concerted effort to bring on someone with a mobile background," Knopp says. "The No. 1 thing on the list was…the ability to build a scalable, mobile product."

Spotlight Ticket Management has hired mobile development staff in addition to the technology executive. The company, which initially catered to customers asking for Web-based and laptop-oriented products, now has two native mobile apps and one mobile Web app in beta.

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The mobile shift "may be catching some people by surprise," Knopp says, "because it's happening faster than they anticipated. For us, it's happening faster than we anticipated."

As Developers Target Growing Mobile Market, IT Departments Adjust

Organizations from recent startups to long-established enterprises all contend with the pace of mobile change. A recent Gartner forecast predicts that more than 2.3 billion mobile devices will ship worldwide in 2013. The market watcher expects tablet shipments to expand 67.9 percent over 2012 levels, while the mobile phone category will grow 4.3 percent. Notebook and desktop PCs, in contrast, are expected to decline 10.6 percent.

Mobile Applications

Naturally, software development increasingly targets those platforms. IT departments are adjusting in various ways. Some create specialized teams to tackle mobile development. Others aim to centralize mobile application management while letting people in different parts of the organization carry on with development.

The latter group may launch governance boards or centers of excellence to coordinate mobile development efforts. Industry executives describe the two-fold objective of such organizations: Encourage creativity and avoid app anarchy.

"I view this as the yin and the yang of mobile apps," says Roger Baker, chief strategy officer at Agilex, an IT solutions provider with an enterprise mobility specialization. "As a CIO, you really want to say to users, 'Yes, you can develop mobile apps.' But at the same time, you have a responsibility to control security, data access and data integrity—all the way up through the brand. You're trying to do both innovation and control at the same time and, it's a pretty interesting balancing act."

Mobile Apps Hard to Manage, But Users Love 'Em

Indeed, IT shops are grappling with the mobile juggernaut.

"Getting a handle on mobile initiatives that are underway is proving to be a challenge," says Sriram Ramanathan, chief technology officer at Kony, a mobile and multi-channel application platform provider.

Ramanathan says multiple lines of business within enterprises have already invested in native, consumer-facing apps, which were built using external consultants. Those apps may reflect myriad standards, technologies and processes used in in their development. New devices, form factors and operating systems upgrades also contribute to the management task. In addition, Ramanathan notes strong demand for mobilizing internal apps, with both executives and employees leading the charge.

The spreading influence of mobile technology marks a departure from the traditional Web-based world. In that setting, CIOs grew accustomed to browser-based app delivery where they could centrally control Web apps with ease, according to Ramanathan.

Download: Strategic Guide to Enterprise Mobile Applications

To overcome the difficulties of mobile app development, some organizations are rolling specialized oversight groups. Ramanathan has seen a mobile/multi-channel center of excellence work well. He describes a center of this kind as a central, CIO-funded initiative that may carry out several tasks:

  • Providing standards pertaining to process and mobile technology.
  • Determining and socializing context-specific best practices for mobile development.
  • Ensuring security best practices.
  • Delivering a set of work product templates to support the mobile software development lifecycle.
  • Providing project oversight and governance.

Mobile Units Take Agile Approach to App Development

Examples of oversight groups include the Department of Veterans Affairs' still-evolving mobile application governance board. The department describes the board in its VA Digital Strategy document as being "responsible for decisions concerning the development of mobile apps centrally managed by VA."

Related: U.S. CIO Unveils Mobile Strategy for Federal Government

As enterprises create centers or boards, they also look to deploy development methodologies for mobile apps. Agile methods and DevOps are among the approaches receiving attention.

Spotlight Ticket Management, for instance, follows the agile methodology, which the company had been using before its mobile development transition. "We're big believers in Scrum and just getting things down quickly and getting iterations out," Knopp says. (Scrum is a framework for team collaboration on software projects.)

Dave Peters, VA assistant deputy CIO for enterprise software development, also noted that apps need to be designed in an iterative fashion. The key is to involve users.

In the VA's case, Peters says the department needs to practice both continuous integration—an approach that's been around for about 20 years—and continuous deployment/DevOps "to decrease our time to market and enable more frequent and timely end user and customer feedback."

Successful Mobile App Development Makes Key Processes Repeatable

Arny Epstein, chief technology officer at Verivo Software, which provides enterprise mobility software, says companies that have built a good app development shop tend to be doing several things well. For one, they have determined the key skills they need and hired accordingly. They have also put thought into their desired development technologies and selected a mobile development and deployment platform to be productive with infrastructure, he notes.

"The best shops have also created an app lifecycle process where all the key phases—development, test deployment of an app, live deployment of an app, repeating the process with the next app or revision—are well established, repeatable and easier to improve in a consistent way," Epstein adds.

How-to: 3 Ways to Be More Agile With Software Shipping Decisions

Agilex's Baker, meanwhile, cited the importance of having both the IT department and the business side work together on the mobile app certification process. IT, for example, may want that process to require user authentication to be properly implemented using the accepted organizational standard. The business side, for its part, may want to ensure that the organization's logo appears appropriately on an app.

In addition, Baker believes an enterprise mobility group should specify a standard data access mechanism through which mobile apps can tap legacy systems. Instead of building multiple interfaces to legacy systems, Baker recommends building a mapping layer on top of the legacy systems. The idea, he explains, is to create a layer that "knows how to access data from legacy systems and make [data] available to the mobile device in a standard way."

A central data access point is just another way of imposing some order on the mobile app trend.

"We need to encourage people to do interesting and innovative things with app development but, at the same time, keep control of the data and the brand," Baker says.

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