by Mary K. Pratt

Don’t let mobile development ruin your life

Jun 17, 20143 mins

Carfax CIO Phil Matthews talks about how to avoid the chaos of managing multiple consumer and business mobile apps

CIOs once controlled which software would run on which computers with which operating systems. But in the age of the mobile enterprise, IT must create and maintain numerous mobile apps that can run on multiple devices using many versions of their various operating systems.

As a result, many companies now have islands of mobility–popular consumer apps, employee apps, lightly used apps, obsolete apps, apps they tried and discarded. It’s a maintenance burden that Carfax CIO Phil Matthews wants to avoid.

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In 2011, when Carfax launched its first mobile app, Matthews and his team contemplated whether to develop native apps, which are built for specific devices. Mobile Web applications, on the other hand, are websites optimized for mobile access. Carfax opted for native apps on iOS and Android, to give users the most efficient software it could, he says.

The company explored whether it could reuse elements from existing applications and found that some code sets and objects could be repurposed. It also established app-management policies that suggest, for example, when to stop supporting aging versions of mobile operating systems. The idea was to hash out a full-fledged product strategy.

Carfax, which sells history reports about used cars and trucks, now offers three mobile apps–two for consumers and one for dealerships. The company decided not to commingle dealer and consumer channels, developing separate native apps for each. “We wanted them each to have a great experience,” Matthews says.

Switching Gears

Maintaining a line of mobile apps requires a shift in mentality for an IT group, says Jeffrey Hammond, an analyst at Forrester Research. “It’s forcing traditional enterprises to think more like software companies.” CIOs must weigh choices like whether to build native or Web apps, as Matthews did at Carfax, and the consequences of each approach for supporting the systems over time. Hammond recommends CIOs also:

Use analytics to understand which mobile devices and operating systems customers prefer and how they use the devices to interact with your company. Build accordingly.

Avoid the one-and-done mentality. Use a high-velocity development process to capitalize on emerging technologies and consumer demands.

Plan updates using beta versions of operating systems so apps work immediately with the latest releases.

Name a manager responsible for monitoring feedback on app stores.

At Carfax, the technology team helps determine new features and evaluate emerging technologies. Third-party developer 3Pillar Global works with Carfax on its mobile development, and together the two companies recently added scanning technology to Carfax’s apps so consumers and dealers can scan the long vehicle identification numbers on a car or truck, rather than typing them in.

Crafting a policy for retiring apps is key. Carfax is now evaluating when to stop supporting iOS 6, which came out in 2012. Factors include the number of users on the OS, guidelines from Apple, and how the features of the Carfax application work, Matthews says.

When the team decides to end support for any version of an OS, Carfax notifies users through the app and in the app store. “We work with marketing to know what it needs to be successful and we let that drive the decisions,” he says.

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