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Implementing mobile content and applications in small and medium businesses

September 20, 2008

Summary

After an enterprise has built the business case for mobile software, decision-makers must determine the optimal means of acquiring the target solution. This note facilitates the planning process by providing the following:
» A comparison of buying, building, and porting, and an analysis of how they apply to mobile applications.
» Benefits and drawbacks of the three approaches.
» Situations for which each approach is suitable.
» A framework for evaluating existing applications to select the right mobilization approach.

Buying » The enterprise purchases a commercial software package that fulfills its mobility needs for the application area under discussion.

Building

» A development team writes a new application in the target mobile platform.
» Developers can be internal staff, independent contractors, or specialized development firms.
» The BlackBerry, Symbian OS and Windows Mobile platforms all offer extensive guidance on mobile development.

Porting

» The enterprise translates existing code from its native desktop platform to the appropriate mobile platform.
» This option includes modification of thin-client or zero-footprint applications for use on small-form mobile devices.
» For an example of the porting process, refer to the MSDN documentation on migrating to Windows Mobile.

This decision is different from the typical build vs. buy dilemma, which is largely based on total cost of ownership (TCO). Since the mobile enterprise application market is not mature, options are much more limited than in the traditional desktop software market.
In situations where all three approaches are feasible, decision-makers should account for the advantages and disadvantages discussed

Buying Advantages» Time to market is short. The product is immediately available – the enterprise can implement the solution as soon as it makes the purchase.
» Maintenance and support are provided by the vendor for a percentage of the initial
licensing price. The enterprise is still responsible for integration work stemming from new releases.
» The enterprise can dedicate its scarce IT resources to less specialized tasks.
Disadvantages» Enterprises will not need every function or feature included in a commercial package, so they end up paying for functionality that goes unused.
» Commercial products often require some degree of customization, which will incur additional costs and prolong the implementation process.
» The enterprise will be
dependent on a third party for its mobile software needs. Internal staff will have less familiarity with mobile platforms.
» Costs can be reduced significantly by excluding unnecessary features and functionality. The solution can be fully customized for the enterprise’s needs from the start.
» If development is done
internally, this will ensure that the enterprise has mobile app expertise for future and ongoing projects, as well as support needs.
» Time to market is considerably longer, since the enterprise must build the product from scratch.
» Maintenance and support costs must be factored into the TCO. Though initial costs for building are generally lower than for
buying, long-term TCO can be higher.
» Homegrown solutions can be lower in quality than commercial software. Small internal development teams and development firms have less expertise and resources than large software manufacturers. The difference may be more acute in mobile apps, because the technology is relatively new.
» Advantages are similar to those
of building.
» Cost and time savings are increased by leveraging existing code (as long as the porting process is not prohibitively onerous).
» Disadvantages are similar to those of building, with one exception: time to market is shorter than that of building. It can be longer or shorter than selecting and buying a solution, depending on the complexity of the porting process

Appropriate Situations

Buying
» For enterprises that do not have access to the necessary development
expertise, buying is the only option (as long as the product exists).

Building
» The mobile enterprise application market is relatively immature. The required solution may not yet be available as a commercial product, or available solutions may be inadequate to meet functional requirements. In these cases, the enterprise will likely need to build or port (see below).

Porting
» This option usually applies only to in-house applications.
» In some cases, an enterprise can enter a partnership with a third-party provider to jointly develop a mobile version of a desktop solution, but the provider retains ownership of the resulting product, unless otherwise stipulated in the contract.

Key Considerations
When choosing among the three approaches, examine current applications to determine the suitability of each approach. There are seven important characteristics that will directly impact this decision

Mobile Assessment Framework for Existing Applications

» With an application that is tightly integrated with internally developed software, a mobile version will require significant customization if buying. Ensure that ease of customization is prioritized as a product selection criterion.
» Depending on the amount of customization needed, porting or buying may make more sense.
» Homegrown applications built on platforms such as .NET and J2EE can be ported to mobile platforms using features included in the development tools. Legacy applications built on older platforms will be more difficult to port.
» Web-based apps will generally not need to be rebuilt, though the interface and navigation will need to be simplified (see below).
» An application with a two-tier client-server architecture, where the interface and core functionality are built directly into a thick client, will exceed the capabilities of a mobile device unless it is replaced or rebuilt. Conversely, an application with a multi-tier architecture, where the interface runs separately from the core functionality, can be more easily ported.
» Interface considerations have a greater impact on mobile apps than on desktop apps. A solution with an extremely complex interface may need to be rebuilt for simplicity, even if the code itself could be ported easily.
» A poorly-documented application will be difficult to rebuild or port. Buying is preferred in such cases, if a commercial mobile version exists
» An application with a small number of core functions and a limited feature set can be rebuilt more easily than a more complex solution.
» A poorly-documented application will be difficult to rebuild or port. Buying is preferred in such cases, if a commercial mobile version exists
The more mature the market, the more likely an appropriate commercial solution can be found. For example, it is far more likely that an enterprise will find a suitable mobile GIS product than a mobile change management tool.
» For solutions in a less mature market, the enterprise may be forced to build or port even if mobile versions exist, simply because the range of available products is too limited.

Recommendations
1. For homegrown apps, explore porting first. Evaluate the functional and interface complexity, and find out what migration options are available for the target platform. When porting is feasible, it can be the least expensive and quickest approach, depending on the extent of changes required.
2. When porting is not an option, apply the 80/20 rule. If the decision comes down to buy vs. build and there is a commercially available mobile solution that meets at least 80% of the enterprise’s needs, buy it. Customizing the remaining 20% will be more time-efficient and less costly than building from scratch.
3. For more complex build vs. buy decisions, use a matrix. List homegrown and commercial solutions on the horizontal axis and decision criteria on the vertical axis. Criteria and weightings should be determined by both IT and business decision-makers to ensure a balanced evaluation

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