Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Can Software as a Service go mobile?

The opportunity for Mobile SaaS is huge, as computing moves from the desktop to mobile devices, it is a natural evolution that software delivered to the desktop follows that migration.

One of the key tenets of SaaS is that the software can be delivered anywhere, as needed, but that anywhere comes with a caveat that is very significant in the mobile world.

The assumption made is that the desktop is always connected to the Internet, usually via a broadband connection. This assumption cannot be made about mobile devices.

To be truly successful, mobile solutions have to adapt to changes in connectivity. The key to their success is handling this gracefully.

As an example, consider mobile email, the most mature mobile SaaS offering. My BlackBerry copes brilliantly with being offline, allowing me to send, reply, sort and organise my emails wherever I am, coverage or not, seamlessly synching when connectivity is restored.

The iPhone Exchange integration however is far less robust, complaining when coverage is lost and regularly restoring emails I’ve deleted and sending emails multiple times.

So the implementation is one thing, but the architecture these applications rely on, conflicts with traditional SaaS implementations where the application is delivered page by page via a web browser. If there is no connectivity then client software is required on the device which then has to be kept up to date.

This is where the iPhone wins hands down. The iTunes Application Store seamlessly ensures software is up to date whenever the device is synched with the owners PC., the self-proclaimed poster-boys of the SaaS revolution have an iPhone app sitting alongside their BlackBerry version that enables offline access to your corporate sales data.

So implementation is key and working offline is critical but this software based solution brings another problem, multiple platform support.

As soon you start shipping software you have to cope with the plethora of devices and platforms that are out there. The beauty of a pure web-based model is that this is irrelevant, however offline working precludes this. So application developers have to focus on a few key handsets that they believe will be most used by the target market for their application, which probably means Nokia S60.

Google have produced an alternative with a technology called Google Gears. This allows a web browser to store information on the PC for later synchronisation, even better news is that they have a version for mobile devices. The bad news is that this only works on Windows Mobile.

However, this may not be all bad. Microsoft have done a very good job of making Windows Mobile the platform of choice for organisations wanting to extend their business apps into the mobile space. They provide a rich and mature set of development tools based around their .NET framework which enable developers to use the same languages and tools that the use to develop desktop and web applications to develop mobile applications. The same cannot be said for the iPhone and the S60 platforms.

Windows Mobile itself seems to be improving with every release and the manufacturers are producing more and more desirable handsets for it.

Another interesting development to match is Microsoft’s Live Mesh, a technology that seamlessly synchronises your data across all your devices. This can be pictures, music, video etc, but there is no reason not to include business data in this mix. Imagine working on a business workflow app on your desktop, stepping away from your desk and being able to continue on your mobile device at exactly the point you left off.

It’s for these reasons that I believe that Windows Mobile represents the best bet of the platforms to support Mobile SaaS, especially for business apps.

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