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View Full Version : Corporate Applications on Smartphone - The Possibilities

David McNamee
07-14-2003, 03:50 AM
I was asked a couple of times last week, in this forum as well as in real life, what sort of corporate and line-of-business applications I thought would be good candidates for the Smartphone platform. I am a contract developer, a consultant. I have gotten to peer inside of a lot of different industries, and there isn't one I've seen that couldn't benefit from Smartphone-based applications. I'd like to share a few ideas here, and also find out from others the kind of Smartphone projects that they think would be good fits for their business.

Before getting started, I want to share a couple of design issues for my list. First, most corporate application development projects exist to collect, process, and review data required to run the business. In that vein, all the apps in my list are data-driven to some extent. I believe that web services will play an enormous part in transporting data to and from Smartphone-based applications. It has been confirmed that Smartphone v.Next will have the .NET Compact Framework in ROM. This will make calling web services much easier than it is now with embedded C++. Secondly, it is important to remember that the Smartphone's is not designed with heavy data entry in mind. It is first and foremost a telephone, then a data retrieval device. Data entry is possible on the Smartphone, but applications that require lots of free-form text entry would be better suited to the Pocket PC or the Tablet PC.

Without further ado, here is my list of corporate applications that would be great on a Smartphone:

Workflow Applications

Workflow applications are a standard request in businesses. Many of them revolve around document editing and approval, but some are simply chain-of-command decision requests. Examples can include purchasing requests, holiday requests, or staff assignment approvals. These non-document based types of workflows could be implemented very well with Smartphone as part of the solution. Image this scenario: the marketing department’s photocopier has broken, and repairs will exceed USD 600. Your company’s purchasing system requires management approval for items exceeding USD 500. The manager who can approve it is, of course, not in the office. What if the purchasing system’s workflow where to include a Smartphone solution? The manager could then receive a notification on the phone, and from an app on the phone approve or deny the request, or request more information.

Survey Applications

Survey applications are data collection apps that would work great on a Smartphone. These apps require the user to respond to a well-defined set of questions, or prompts, using a well-defined set of answers. Think labels and dropdown lists, here, folks. Things that are easily navigated using the Smartphone’s game pad. Survey-type applications could be useful in the following areas:
- Code enforcement
- Building safety inspections
- On-site vehicle inspections
- Anywhere you would mark items off of a checklist

Decision Support Systems

Decision support systems are the entire reason for some IT department’s existence. Smartphones can definitely help executives keep tabs on the business while away from the office. These types of applications, though, can be troublesome due to the large amount of data that they can bring to the client. With a Smartphone, we want to target specific scenarios that won’t try to pull 40MB of data down for analysis.

One scenario is what I call “supervisor decision support.” These are decision support applications that target specific business units or cost centers, helping local management run day-to-day operations. This could include things like: call center phone queuing statistics; amusement park attendance counts and projections; cash register sales; any other monitored values that supervisors use to manage hourly staffing needs.

The other scenario is executive decision support. Typically, decision support systems allow executives to slice, dice and generally maul data in order to understand their current business and make decisions for the future. Obviously, a Smartphone is going to have a difficult time presenting a user interface that provides the kind of freedom needed to do some of the more exotic types of things a desktop app can allow. However, it is completely reasonable for a Smartphone to provide predefined, static representations of data that an executive might want while away from the office.


No, we’re not talking department store scan-what’s-on-the-shelf inventory. Think higher up the inventory food chain. Imagine being a shoe buyer for a national department store chain, and you’re having an impromptu lunch with a Kenneth Cole rep. It would be great to have an app built into your phone that can tell you how many pairs of black, leather Kenneth Coles are gathering dust in your central Wyoming stores before being suckered into placing another order.

Also, inventory doesn’t have to be physical goods. If your company is in a service industry, an application that can show you your staff’s availability and request their time would be handy.

Location-based Apps

Finally, we have location-based applications. These really bring to bear the power of being mobile. They depend on more than just a Smartphone, though. They also need a carrier that can provide real-time positioning data. AT&T has been doing demonstrations of this using Microsoft Location Server. There are two classes of applications that I see as being very big: those that center on where you are, and those that center on where things are in relation to you. We’ll begin with the latter.

Knowing where things or people are in relation to your current position can be important. For a courier, it is important to know where the next stop will be. For the courier’s central dispatching office, it is important to know where all of the courier’s are at any given time. Combining a dispatch application with MapPoint web services and Smartphones, could be a huge win. The dispatch office could update the courier’s route and have that information show up on a map displayed on the courier’s Smartphone.

The other class of Smartphone app is all about where you are at the moment. I have worked on a couple of applications that assist with what I would call location scouting. Location scouting involves someone from the company discovering a place, and making a record of that location. This could be so that the location is visited again by another company representative, the location is added to some route, or the location is considered for investment. However the location is used, these apps all suffer from the same problem – how to record the location. Physical address, nearest intersection, and nearest landmark are typical choices for describing the location. These are typically text fields, and prone to human error. It would be much more effective if the location scout pushed a button on the phone to record the location’s coordinates and send them back to the office for consideration.

There you have it – my top corporate applications that I’d like to see built using the Smartphone platform. What do you think?

Mike Temporale
07-14-2003, 07:22 PM
"Location Scouting" is a very interesting and original idea. I think to do this quickly and accurately you would need a GPS, or a digital camera.

However, I think that the near future is going to be focused on Workflow/Decission/Reporting/Information based applications. Like Approve & Deny, Financial reporting, Budget reports, Network Status, Server Load, and of course communication (voice, sms, etc..).

Kris Kumar
07-17-2003, 02:33 PM
Right now for the business apps..I feel that the GPRS speed is a major bottleneck. (I dont know how its in Europe and other places.) In US I believe the avg speed is 30kbps. Any Business App which relys on Real time data will suffer. Plus I have noticed that Data connections doesnt work well in a moving car :-( Unless the GSM Networks improve, and we get 3G networks or better coverage..we wont see a big boom.

The other thing that will influence quick adoption is Smartphones on CDMA or TDMA networks like Sprint or Verizon, which have faster connections (avg 70kbps +).

Basically I feel that Sync and Go type business apps will prosper in the near future. But they are a pain to develop compared to web apps.

Email (Microsoft Information Server or the Oulook Web Access in Exchange) will be the most popular app for Smartphones. Attachment Viewers should be hot.

And Location based apps...like to assist sales force (CRM) and or service/field reps, will be the future wave. I was pretty impressed with the Microsoft Enterprise Location Server and the oppurtunites it provides to the enterprises.


David McNamee
07-17-2003, 03:21 PM
I feel that the GPRS speed is a major bottleneck. (I dont know how its in Europe and other places.) In US I believe the avg speed is 30kbps. Any Business App which relys on Real time data will suffer.

Yes, it's always a challenge to build an application that keeps data up-to-the-second. Remember, though, there is "hard" real-time (think hospital vital signs monitor, airplane instrumentation), and then there is "real-enough-time". Most business apps can stand a lag in data access times of several seconds or more. The question there is whether there is a measurable business value to data arriving in ten milliseconds or three seconds.

You're right, though. Network latency is the biggest bottleneck facing mobile business applications. However, I think it is currently in the high-end of the acceptable range. If developers are smart in the quantity and frequency of network trips, I think we can have happy users.

Kris Kumar
07-17-2003, 07:01 PM
I agree, syncing data periodically and doing it in background is a good way, and should be good enough for a lot of business needs.

But cant wait till we have "WYNI-WYG" network, I mean What You Need Is What You Get. On demans download of business data instead of frequent behind the scenes downloads, which may incur heavy network tariff.

There have been many times when I am at a store and want to do price check, or get product details for the item on sale..I pull out my Smartphone...try to launch pIE and boom "unable to connect".

Well I guess I am side tracking this thread...we should think about cool ideas.

And I agree Smartphone form factor has a lot of potential...and with the 2003 version, with .NET CF, the ability to write Business Apps cool/complex would become easy.

I wish MS would make the .NET CF available sooner for the Smartphone...I mean atleast to the owners of the MS Dev Kit. The 2002 SDK is a joke ;-)

David McNamee
07-17-2003, 07:12 PM
There have been many times when I am at a store and want to do price check, or get product details for the item on sale..I pull out my Smartphone...try to launch pIE and boom "unable to connect".

I think that issue goes to the carriers for not having sufficiently pervasive network availability. However, it is something that developers need to think about while designing apps. We can't assume that because the phone is on and our app is running that we can reliably make a web service call. We must consider offline usage in any Smartphone application written.

David McNamee
07-17-2003, 07:21 PM
I wish MS would make the .NET CF available sooner for the Smartphone...I mean atleast to the owners of the MS Dev Kit. The 2002 SDK is a joke ;-)

I'll go one better. I wish I could get my hands on an image of v.Next that has CF baked in. I would even be content with an x86 emulator image with Visual Studio hooks. I work for a partner and am an MCT, so I'm already under scads of NDAs - I'd be happy to add one more to the list :-)

Kris Kumar
07-18-2003, 03:22 AM
[quote=kris_kumar]I wish I could get my hands on an image of v.Next that has CF baked in.

Me too :-(