Are Native Mobile Apps Ready for the Enterprise?

The Apple App Store has reached 25 billion downloads, and many of us have bought and enjoy some of them. Really, the apps for iPad, iPhone and Android astonish us many times. The bad part comes when we go back to our desktop computer to use the enterprise software and feel as if we travel in the time some years back.

It would be nice, very nice, to be able to use our mobile device to access to our enterprise software. The question is: are native mobile applications ready for enterprise software?

The handicaps
Of course, we can write native mobile apps to run all our business, however there are some limitations inherent in mobile software that make it not optimum for developing enterprise software. I cite two of them below.

Instant update
In a typical enterprise web application written in Java that is being run by an application server, a change to the application has immediate effect in all the users. The users do not need any special procedure to update, they just use the browser as always and the application is already updated. On the other hand, a mobile application must be published to an app store, and the user must update the app explicitly. Moreover, many times we have to rely on external providers such as Apple (with the iOS Developer Enterprise Program) or Appaloosa to distribute and update our apps.

In short, traditional enterprise web application are easier to update than native mobile apps. This is an important point in an enterprise environment where sometimes we need to start with a version on some specific date, sometimes we have a critical bug to fix immediately, etc.

With native mobile apps we have to write our application 3 times, one with Objective-C for iPhone, one with Java for Android and another one with C# for Windows Phone. We can ignore Windows Phone, but we cannot ignore iPhone or Android, so at least we have to write the apps two times. Though some multiplatform solutions exist, such as HTML5 + JavaScript with PhoneGap, this is still a serious problem.

For its part, a regular Java Enterprise application can be executed from any computer with a browser, and the application itself can run in any possible server configuration. The same code runs anywhere.

A web alternative
The obvious alternative is to run the current web enterprise application using the browser of the mobile device. It works, but it does not produce a good user experience, because the current applications are designed for the big screens of the desktop computer and to be used with mouse. The visual elements don’t have a good layout in the small mobile screen and the links and buttons are too small and in the wrong place, so they are difficult to touch. Moreover, some elements of a regular web application just do not work in a mobile browser, such as resizable elements or rich text editors. And we want to feel a real mobile experience using gestures to manage the app or to see the usual visual effects of a native applications.

Of course, with the current web technology (A.K.A. HTML5) we can create web applications that behave and look like native mobile apps. It’s true that a pure web application cannot use some device features like the accelerometer, the camera or the compass, but most enterprise applications do not need them and with the time these features will be available for pure web applications too (in fact some of them are already available). Also it’s true that the native mobile application can work offline, but most enterprise applications need to be connected to live data in the servers, so they are not very useful offline anyway. Furthermore, we can create HTML5 offline applications if needed.

Creating web mobile applications allows us to use our current infrastructure and our current developers. However, it’s not so easy, because we have to rewrite the user interface of our application completely, and afterwards we have to maintain both interfaces, the desktop one and the mobile one. How can you avoid this problem?

Automatic User Interface generation
Do not write the user interface, just generate it automatically. This is a way to have your enterprise applications in the desktop and in the mobile devices with very little cost. Maybe you think that automatic user interface generation does not work, but frameworks with automatic UI generation are among us for a while with great satisfaction for the developers and customers.

For example, using the OpenXava framework you can write a domain class, a class only with data structure and business logic but without any user interface logic, and from it you can get the following application in a desktop browser:

And the next in a smartphone (in this case using the XavaPhone add-on for OpenXava):

And all this writing only a single Java class.