As we round out 2010 and look towards 2011 for the year’s major technology investments, one thing is clear: mobile adoption is exploding. According to a Morgan Stanley research study, in the next two years, sales of smartphones will overtake PC sales -- including both desktops and notebooks (Morgan Stanley, “Ten Questions Internet Execs Should Ask & Answer,” November 16, 2010). With more than 300,000 apps available on Apple’s App Store, the ubiquity of smartphones, apps, and easy, convenient, mobile experiences are putting pressure on IT to mobile enable B2C and B2E applications to facilitate increased employee efficiency and keep up with consumer demand for mobile access to B2C applications.

Taking Legacy Apps Mobile

Based on discussions with IT leaders and industry analysts, CIOs are scrambling to mobile enable legacy applications to make them available on smartphones, tablets and even GPS/navigation devices. And they are demanding their staff get this done in a matter of months as pressure mounts to not only stay ahead of the competition, but often simply to keep up.

The growth rate of Apple’s mobile devices alone (iPhone, iTouch and iPad) has multiplied at unprecedented rates, far exceeding that of mobile or desktop Internet. iPhone, iTouch and iPad users grew to ~120M users in less than 4.5 years, whereas desktop internet grew to ~9M users and mobile internet to ~27M for the same time period following their respective market introductions.

Millions of employees around the world are bringing their smartphones to work. Accustomed to the always-on access and instantly available apps, they’re resetting workplace expectations and demanding the same access to business apps. According to a survey conducted by the Yankee Group, 90 percent of organizations surveyed have already enabled smartphone access to corporate email and PIM.

Yet when it comes to enabling mobile access to mission-critical enterprise apps, companies have made far less progress with only 30 percent of those surveyed providing smartphone access to CRM, 20 percent to ERP and 18 percent to SFA (“Mobility Outlook 2011: What Enterprises Are Planning for Mobility in the Year Ahead,” a supplement to Mobile Enterprise Magazine, no date).

Challenges with Going Mobile

One major roadblock enterprises need to overcome when extending legacy applications to mobile devices is the lack of “mobile ready” web service APIs for existing applications. Adding a service-level interface to a legacy application is a complex development project that typically involves a full or extensive rewrite of the existing legacy application.

A common problem is that the application has been written and modified by multiple developers throughout the years, of which many or most have left the company, and no one completely knows the entire architecture to mobile enable the application. And thus, the only alternative is to basically re-write the application, which can take several years of coding and insurmountable resources and budget.

When embarking on a mobile enablement project, there are several important factors to evaluate:

  • Do the applications you want to mobile-enable have documented APIs?
  • What components and features of your legacy application do you want to mobile enable?
  • How are you taking into account form factor? Your original application is not designed to display on a smaller device. Frames, JavaScript and images won’t fit the screen. You need a means to shrink the data representation without losing important information.
  • How will you deal with business logic and processes too complicated to be executed on a mobile device with a limited keyboard, where air time needs to be controlled, and server round trips need to be minimized?
  • How will you deal with service interruptions requiring the ability to queue processes for later execution on the backend?
  • Will you be combining data from multiple apps into one mobile application?
  • What mobile platforms do you need to support?
  • To what extent will you want to modify or extend your mobile application in the near future?

Up front planning for mobile enablement projects can greatly facilitate the entire process, but don’t underestimate the complexity, especially when dealing with traditional data integration techniques. In one case, a major global bank ended up spending a year to create a 30-page business case to mobile enable a system for 15,000 sales agents.

Finding Ways to Speed Mobile Enablement

An alternative approach to traditional mobile enablement relies on emerging data integration technologies that make existing legacy applications “mobile ready” without writing any code. By working with an application’s business logic in a visual browser-based development environment, companies can easily create a new web service interface ”wrapper” without touching any of the existing code. The advantage of this method is that enterprises are able to provide mobile access to legacy B2C and B2E applications in days or hours as opposed to months or years.

For example, an international media company wanted to mobile-enable their ecommerce website to sell textbooks to students with mobile phones. However, the estimate to complete the project using traditional data integration methods was close to two years and at a price of a few million dollars. As a result, they opted for a new browser-based data integration approach, allowing them to mobile-enable their website in just two months without writing any code.

One thing is clear: Every enterprise today is, or should be, pursuing at least one mobile initiative. The market is moving rapidly and your customers and employees demand it. Luckily there’s still time, and there are technologies out there to help speed development time to get your legacy applications deployed quickly.