Do you have an iPad ? Do you use it for work ? Perhaps you have a corporate provided Blackberry and are intrigued by the news of the Playbook ? Maybe you're saving up for a Samsung Galaxy Tab ?
What does this proliferation of a new class of mobile devices mean for the content management professional, our information management and content publishing strategies and the software that we use to provide services to our organizations ?

New Toys, or New Tools?

I have to admit, I don’t have an iPad. However I have played with those belonging to friends, and chatting with a colleague recently about access to intranets via mobile devices, I have been thinking about how this new class of device might impact upon what we do.

I don't mean external web sites, digital marketing or external use of social media, I mean how does this class of device impact our development of intranets, our internal collaboration systems and other enterprise systems.

The Samsung Galaxy Tab - enterprise Android Apps anyone ?

Now before anyone comments, yes I know tablet computers have been around for a while. I have used one in anger, so to speak, many years ago. When running a large-ish IT department in the UK, I had a Research Machines Windows XP tablet, which I used to carry around for asset management (as in physical assets, like PC’s). It was quite large, quite heavy and needed a ‘pen’ for input, but non the less such machines have been used in many ‘vertical’ industry applications for years, without breaking into the ‘main stream’. So to me the new class of devices ushered in by Apple with the iPad are characterized by 2 main differences:

  • Purpose designed multi-touch interfaces
  • General purpose ‘consumer’ orientation

I suppose I could add network connectivity, as back in the day my RM machine only had wi-fi, with no 3G cards or dongles being available at that point in history! So what does that mean from a purely content management perspective? Well two broad categories of issues come to mind:

  • Security and access 
  • Publishing content for specific interfaces

As security and access are a major consideration for all classes of mobile devices, I will restrict this piece to the content management element.

Mobile Access to Content

So just when we thought we had all wrapped our head around developing interfaces for small phone sized devices (anyone remember WAP?), not only do the phone screens keep getting bigger, but now we have this class of ‘pads’, slates or tablets, with screen’s ranging from 7 to 10 inch diagonals.

So that’s obviously a better size for viewing your intranet right? Well physical screen size is not everything. What about the resolution? You may have decided to design your intranet, our your web based collaboration system, or your web interface to your CRM for a minimum screen size of 1024 by 768 pixels, because that seems quite conservative, even for laptop screens today. Of course you had a completely separate and much more constrained interface for use on phones (didn’t you ?). 

So now what do we do, the screen resolution of the pads / slates / tablets are all different, with different orientations and generally different user interaction paradigms (when compared to desktop PC’s). At least they all have touch screens in common, so you can take that into consideration for interface design. But do you code for the iPad because the CEO has asked you to, or will your organization be issuing Blackberry Playbooks to its Exec’s and road warriors ?

Playbook - "Blackberry, amplified..."

Web Page Versus App

This brings us to something which appears to a common topic for debate recently with respect to this class of devices, and their smaller smart phone cousins; web standards versus custom Applications.
Instead of attempting to configure a separate mobile web interface for your systems, why not take the “there’s an App for that” type approach? Buy, or create in house specific applications. Maybe your major application vendors have jumped on the iPad band wagon and already created a generic App so you don't need to worry about development (just deployment). On the other hand, do you have the cash or resources to develop your own “intranet app”  like eBay have?

sap_explorer for iphone.jpg
SAP enterprise applications on your iPhone

The argument against Apps is the fragmentation of the internet, i.e. we should stick with the web as a delivery channel and the well established web standards. So you code your new interface in HTML 5 and use other standards to ensure your systems can be accessed from iOS, Android, Blackberry or Windows smart phone devices. Even Microsoft likes to boast about how well behaved SharePoint 2010 is with other (non-MS IE) browsers because of their leverage of common standards (but note Safari on the iPad is not a fully supported browser).

So apps versus web interface is an interesting debate, but one which might be highly contextual, depending on the approach the vendors take to licensing their Software Development Kits (SDK's). Even so, the lowest common denominator is going to be the fact that all these devices have web browsers.

Editors Note: For more on this topic read: Why Mobile Websites Are Better than Mobile Applications

Consumer Software Goes Enterprise

Another element of managing content for these devices is how they interact with software services, and whether your use of these devices may tie you into 'cloud computing'. For example because the iPad is essentially a 'consumer device' and does not have a user accessible file system, many apps rely on integration with cloud systems such as for moving or synchronizing content. That might be OK for some organizations, but maybe not for others. 

Editor's Note: You may also be interested in: What the Past Can Teach Us About Information Management Agility

Considerations for Content Management Professionals

As always it will be highly contextual, depending on whether your organization is supporting engineers in the field with ruggedized handheld's running specialized vertical apps, or if your consultants want access to the intranet via their new BB Playbooks, or if the 'corridor warriors' want access to SharePoint BI dashboards via their iPads -- we will still need to consider the following:

  • Do you have a multiple channel publishing strategy (write once, publish many) for internal consumption of information? If not does the introduction of these devices mean you need one?
  • Do you already have a 'mobile' strategy for allowing employee's to access internal information and services via smart phones? Can it be expanded to cover the new devices?
  • Do you have the internal relationships in place to be involved in any discussions and decisions on the Application versus Web interface debate?
  • Does 'mobile access' need to have greater priority the next time you RFI / RFP for a CMS?
  • Does a cost benefit analysis of providing for example intranet access via mobile devices show net benefits for your organization?
  • Do you have enough information to be able to calculate a hard / soft Return On Investment for mobile device access to your internal information?

These devices are here to stay, they will evolve rapidly, and it is has been theorized by experts that people who are used to having these devices at home, will demand the ability to use them for work. So adding 'mobile' elements to your content management and information publishing strategies just got even more important.