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iPad pilot – version 1.5 – More thoughts

First, check out some great comments and my responses In response to my previous post

Additional Thoughts:

Ok, now some additional thoughts regarding the iPad, in fact, regarding barriers to the mobile revolution in general.

1) Access to secure, reliable, continuous Wifi networks: Read this interesting article the other day and it made me think. Also check out the cart of iPad sales for the wifi only model vs. the wifi+3G model. One of the things I didnt even consider was how vital ubiquitous wifi network availability is to be able to seamlessly integrate mobile devices into your network. It didn’t register with me since our organization is fortunate in this area. We recently (March-Apr 2010) moved into a brand spanking new facility in SW DC and one of the infrastructure decisions we made was to provide seamless and uniform wifi everywhere in the new facility. Frankly, when you have the ability to design the facility from scratch, its not very hard or expensive to build the hotspot/wireless bridge infrastructure in with the core network design. As a result, we have seamless, high speed 802.11N secure wireless access within our facility. when you log on to the wireless network, you can see all your systems behind the firewall. The iPad seamlessly starts to access email, CRM systems, intranets, sharepoint sites and network shares.

Now what if seamless secure wifi access was not available? the 3G iPad would still provide value, but the lower bandwidth would certainly make things less pleasant (longer file upload/download times, slower syncing, etc.). Moreover, you couldnt see the back-end systems, intranets, sharepoint servers and CRM systems. It would require a continual, active VPN connection which would cause further service degradation. Things like Wyse remote access would be too slow to be practical. Also, it would probably result in astronomical data charges with AT&T since the unlimited plans are no longer available.

The point here is that iPad like devices, and smart phones are here to stay and will be infiltrating the enterprise with or without the CIO’s approval. If your facilities do not provide continuous, seamless wifi that is secure, this is an area you should invest in over the next year. This would also help with things like hoteling, telework, and mobility applications (inventory, ware

housing, mobile VOIP, etc.). This would also improve the security posture of the enterprise (believe it or not). You want to make sure that corporate data is traveling over encrypted wireless channels controlled by organization. If such networks are not available, end users will inevitably hook onto nearby unencrypted third party networks, or use 3G, both of which are less safe than your own encrypted networks. Owning your own wifi network also allows you to better manage corporate policies such as ensuring appropriate software and security stack for end points, access to banned websites/content, monitor traffic, etc.

2) Browser compatibility: Seems to me that one of the major inhibitors of fully leveraging iPad in the enterprise is the browser compatibility issues with corporate systems (not even talking about your legacy mainframe systems). In our case, almost all of our major web based enterprise systems are incompatible or only partially compatible with the Safari browser (Ariba, PeopleSoft, Oracle, Cognos, Sharepoint). The internal web applications we have developed in .Net work just fine. All of these enterprise systems are typically designed with Internet Explorer in mind (obviously) and also work to a lesser extent with Firefox, but typically not with Safari (the red headed step child of the browser world). Moreover, most of them are not compatible with the WebKit framework that is used within the iPad and iPhone browsers, as well as a myriad of other web browsers including the Android browser, and the browser packaged within Blackberry OS 6 onwards (including the Blackberry playbook). In fact, the only major mobile platform that doesn’t use WebKit is the new windows Phone 7.

People smarter than myself can tell us what the reason for this incompatibility with Safari is. Either the enterprise systems are being designed for Internet Explorer in mind, or use third party add-ons like Java, flash, etc., which we know is NOT very standards compliant, or they are being designed for open standards and Safari is not very standards compliant. I suspect the truth is somewhere in the middle.

It seems to me that if more and more enterprise systems were somehow made to work with WebKit browsers, it would obviate the lack of apps supporting these systems. I could, for example, suddenly be able to approve invoices and transactions, look up BI reports, process procurements, approve time sheets, etc. all form my smart phone or iPad browser. Moreover, I could also do this from my blackberry, Android, and obviously, from my windows mobile device. Seems like a win win to me.

There is some movement in this direction with SAP and Cognos both announcing full compatibility with WebKit browsers in their latest releases. However, it does put an additional burden on the enterprise whereby some of the try potential for mobility with iPad like devices cannot be leveraged until they upgrade/modernize their enterprise systems, an arduous task in itself. Otherwise, orgs can either hope for apps (3rd party or vendor released apps to tap into your back end systems are coming out. Specifically, SAP and Oracle are pretty active in this space). Or, the corporationcan build and release its own app(s) that tie into its back end systems using existing or new transactional interfaces. This requires skill sets, expertise and investment that most corporations do not have available.


3) Legacy Systems: Then there is this whole issue of legacy systems. Most public sector organizations have their fair share of them. In our case, we have core systems w

hich are mainframe based, and a plethora of mid-tier apps using thick clients (VB, C++,Java, Oracle Forms, FoxPro, Lotus Domino, etc.). There is really no easy way to enable access

to these apps from modern mobile platforms, short of re-writing these apps into a standard web based platform, or to re-write a parallel app for the mobile platform that talks to the same back end database, both of which are arduous tasks. Other public sector CIOs will agree with me on this. How would you solve this problem? Do you see this to be an issue in your organization?

What do you think?

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Profile Photo Aaron Helton

Compatibility issues in web apps come from a couple of possible sources. In the case of Sharepoint and a number of other applications, they make extensive use of ActiveX controls, which IE/Windows only. The other source is standards compliance. WebKit usually is reported to have high standards compliance, while IE famously does not, so if a site or app is developed only with IE in mind, at best it may look terrible in any other browser, and at worst it just won’t work. The first source is the hardest to fix, because ActiveX is a potent set of tools and libraries and enables a good deal of handy functionality. Fixing something that uses ActiveX for compatibility would mean not using ActiveX (so a rewrite would be in order). Incompatibility due to standards compliance issues is just bad programming these days. Incidentally, Flash and Java are highly compatible, as long as you have the right plugins.

And you’re right that creating parallel apps for legacy systems is a tough nut, but your alternative is to rip out the legacy systems and replace them with something more modern. I’m sure you understand how much cost and headache that entails.