As more enterprise users show up at the office with tablets (including the latest market entrants, Apple's iPad Mini and Microsoft's Surface), organizations are increasingly looking for creative ways to leverage these devices for business use. Recent research shows that a significant number of organizations will deploy mobile line-of-business apps in the next year, with many of those efforts geared toward tablet-specific enterprise apps. As enterprises bolster those tablet development plans, IT will need to adjust to the latest twist in enterprise application strategy, including new demands for IT support.
"People are starting to say, 'OK, we've got this infrastructure in place. What are we going to do with it?'" says Michael King, director of enterprise strategy for Appcelerator, a mobile development platform company. "When you're starting to build these apps across all these different devices and screen sizes and operating systems, the real limiter becomes, 'How can I do this in a cost-effective manner?'"
In spite of the challenges, enterprises are plowing forward with their tablet and mobile-targeted development plans. For instance, an analyst report (registration required) from Evans Data found that among 400 North American mobile developers, 35% currently target tablets, but an additional 46% plant to do so within six months.
“Developers usually lead the sea of changes in this industry, and what we're seeing in developers' adoption patterns is a forerunner of what the general industry landscape will become,” says Janel Garvin, CEO of Evans Data.
Meanwhile, a InformationWeek 2012 Mobile Application Development Survey, detailed in the report "App Dev in the Age of Mobility," showed a strong corporate interest in tablets. Among the 258 business technology professionals who are developing or planning to develop mobile applications, 64% say they plan to build native custom applications for Apple iPad, 48% reported plans to build for Android tablet and 7% for RIM BlackBerry Tablet OS.
The InformationWeek survey also asked respondents about their reasons for developing mobile applications. The top response? Because business managers and employees want a mobile option.
In addition, research from mobile management firm Zenprise showed that among a sample of 501 IT professionals, nearly three-quarters of them reported their organizations will deploy mobile line-of-business apps in the next 12 months, with 52% of those apps serving a mission-critical role. Though the survey itself did not separate tablet and smartphone development, Jamie Barnett, senior director of marketing for Zenprise, reports from observing customer engagements that tablet development plays a big role in those high posted numbers.
"I can tell you anecdotally that the majority of examples of organizations putting mobile to work in the enterprise are depending on tablet-based initiatives," Barnett says.
Tablets offer expanded screen sizes, superior computing power and advanced graphics compared with smartphones, making them an ideal platform for enterprise applications. "We're seeing organizations doing all sorts of cool things with tablets, really taking advantage of the full screen and the great graphics capability," says Barnett.
Perhaps one of the biggest use cases influencing the majority of the current crop of enterprise tablet development projects revolves around guided selling.
"One of the great use cases for a tablet is in sales, when you're sitting down with your clients and showcasing to them your services and your products and working with them collaboratively on these devices," says Brian Fino, owner of Fino Consulting, an IT services company.
Appcelerator's King agrees, saying he's seen medical device and pharmaceutical sales teams increase the execution of orders out in the field when using tablet-enhanced guided selling compared with traditional paper-based methods.
Enterprises that plan to build apps for mobile devices should consider how best to take advantage of the platform. For example, Fino advises clients to regard enterprise tablet apps as content-centric, and phone-based apps as a way to check on status.
"With a phone, we're advising our clients to really build those applications that allow them to check on status," he says. "It's a very quick glance that lets me see what's going on with something or see if there is anything I need to do quickly, versus a tablet app where I'm engaging with the content."
Because of this distinction, he advises enterprises to avoid priming their tablet development programs with tons of apps simply ported over from existing smartphone applications.
"These really have separate use cases," he says. "You're going to pull out your iPad at different times than when you'd pull out your iPhone, and you're going to want to do different things on these two different devices. Sure they're running the same OS, more or less, but you're really building two separate applications."
Barnett says the difference between developing for tablets versus smartphones often has less to do with under-the-hood coding and more to do with adjusting to workflow and business process considerations.
One of the big challenges of adding tablet-focused development to an already crowded project list is skill sets and budget, as knowledgeable experts may be scarce or expensive. That means enterprises may have to outsource at least part of their tablet development to third parties. According to the Zenprise results, about half of all custom design mobile app projects are outsourced to third-party developers right now.
"Among a lot of the enterprises that we've worked with, not one of them had the skills from a UX design perspective, nor the technical know-how to do these things," says Fino. "They'd really been working with traditional desktop applications and hadn't built up the competencies yet."