Mobile Cloud Computing and Enterprise Applications

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Cloud computing is often touted as the “Future of Internet” and is  is arguably the most widely discussed topic among the Internet community. A recent study by ABI Research predicts that cloud computing technologies will become a disruptive force in the mobile world, making mobile applications more sophisticated and allowing them to be offered to a much broader audience of mobile subscribers.  The market research firm expects that by 2014, the cloud-based model will be the dominant method for delivering mobile applications and will bring in annual revenue of nearly USD 20 billion. In Mobile Cloud Computing, the data storage and processing happens outside of the device somewhere in the cloud. It certainly has a huge potential in the consumer space but I would argue a case for enterprise applications in this article. The potential is huge – IDC estimates that there are 848 million mobile workers across the globe.

There are many consumer applications, Apple app store has over 100,000 applications but when it comes to enterprise, there are not many applications. It is surprising that we are in this situation despite enterprise having a higher propensity to pay. How many companies use productivity tools apart from email? Even the technology firms do not have a simple sales force automation tool. There are a few Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) companies like Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Google’s App Engine which are working hard in this area and have seen some success as well. Google Apps are used by over 10 million users and 1.75 million enterprises on fixed internet. But, where are the mobile applications?

Amongst many advantages of Cloud Computing, the main one is that it increases the reach of mobile application functionality beyond the smart phones. The devices can be low on computing power and hence cheaper. A case in point is the INQ mobile phone which is a social networking phone. It is utilizing the functionality of the web to provide an attractive feature and the at the same time keeping the cost of the phone low as the memory and processing requirements are low. The other benefit is that it democratizes the applications and reduces the dependence on the carrier. The application would reside somewhere in the cloud and hence the role of the carrier diminishes significantly. These two benefits are of special significance to the corporate. The large corporate with thousands of employees cannot afford to provide a smart phone to its employees and there is merit in exploring possibilities of benefits of a smart phone in an ordinary phone (Smart phones are just 12% of the handset market). Also, the large corporate have their employees distributed across the geographies which mean that no one carrier would be able to provide all services. Blackberry has been preferred choice of business email users in the United States for many years now but in a number of countries, it is either still not available or arrived late in the last couple of years. This means that the email experience that a corporate could provide to its employees varied from location to location. This is not an ideal situation when it comes to productivity tools.

As I had discussed in one of my earlier posts that application development is very complex and it needs to be tested on multiple handsets and multiple networks. This makes the task of enterprise application development very tedious and to a large extent responsible for low uptake of enterprise applications. However, this problem is no longer an issue with cloud computing. Using Web development, applications can run on servers instead of locally, so handset requirements can be greatly reduced and developers can create just one version of an application. Cloud computing promises to reduce the carrier stronghold on services as the computing would now happen in the cloud. Ironically, the success of cloud is dependent on the quality of internet access that is provided by the carriers.

The future for enterprise computing is in the cloud. Windows 7 which was released recently is optimized for “cloud computing” and web browsing. Google Wave which is in the pilot stage is threatening to change the enterprise collaboration tools. SAP and Salesforce.com have developed early prototypes for the wave extension. Even audio and video conferencing is likely to become part of the Google Wave. Since Google Wave will ultimately have a mobile client, the mobile cloud computing is here to stay.

There are a few key issues that an enterprise needs to resolve to be able to effectively use mobile cloud computing:

  1. License pricing and license management – All enterprise tools like SAP, email, etc. have a license that there are still a few issues around it when it comes to usage on the mobile. Unless, these issues are resolved, IT departments would find it very difficult to justify a business case for mobile cloud computing.
  2. Security – This is an issue that has prevented enterprise from unlimited use of internet and to some extent laptops. The issue is many times more difficult to handle on mobile and cloud.
  3. Return on Investment – ROI remains soft and that the systems integration work for building custom enterprise applications has high cost and hence the small enterprise are not able to justify the deployment of mobile cloud computing
  4. Consistent Performance – Access to the cloud in many countries remain patchy. There are no 3G networks beyond the big cities and hence the performance and experience of the users may vary across geographies

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