Smartphone Apps: Businesses Should Pass

A few things I'm not going to do in 2009: I'm not refitting my house for solar. I'm not going to buy an electric car. And no matter how much my daughter pleads with me, I am absolutely not sitting through another Harry Potter movie.

Here's another thing I won't be doing: I won't be implementing a "mobile solution" for my business. And if you're a small-business owner, neither should you.

Want to buy some toys from the App Store or for your BlackBerry? Knock yourself out. Spend $50 on a little expense calculator or something that creates an invoice on your iPhone. Have some fun. But these are not companywide mobile business applications. These are playthings. You might as well download Bunny Farts ("just tap the bunny and smile"). It's just as useful.

I'm pretty sure solar energy and electric cars are going to be great things—in the future. And yes, running mobile applications from your phone will also be a great thing, someday. But we've got a ways to go before these kinds of technologies make sense for a business owner.

A Failure to Communicate

Take my last experience. One of my clients is a 50-person manufacturer in New Jersey. The company wanted to use its customer relationship-management software on its employees' BlackBerrys. One of the CRM vendors we represent recently launched a mobile application that promised to do just this. Naively, we sold it to this unfortunate client a few weeks ago. As of this writing, the application is still not working. Devices can't communicate with the server. Data aren't appearing as they should. Some devices get no data at all. I should've sold them a few farting bunnies instead.

Who's fault was it? The CRM vendor that wrote the application blamed "security issues" and pointed its finger at the BlackBerry server software. But BlackBerry maker Research In Motion (RIMM) reasonably argued that the devices worked fine and that it couldn't be responsible for a third-party product. Of course, the wireless carrier wanted no part of this mess. We pointed to George Bush, but that didn't work, either. In the end, all parties just blamed my company. And I deserved it. I never should've implemented this mobile app.

Another instance: Last week a guy came to my house to fix our oven. He worked for one of those appliance repair chains. He had a mobile application on his device to generate a quote and a work order. The poor guy's fingers were literally too large to punch the data into the phone. He kept making mistakes. And the wireless reception in my house is extremely poor, so the process kept slowing down and breaking. Ultimately he had to call in the information to his office, using my house phone. Another mobile app success story!

Love or hate Microsoft (MSFT), the software giant did create a uniform place to develop applications for the desktop. Now we've got Microsoft, RIM, Palm (PALM), Apple (AAPL), and Google (GOOG) running our portable devices. Sadly, developers just can't get useful business tools to work on them all. The market is so fragmented that no one software programmer can generate the kind of volume needed to create a seamless, simple, supportable, and—most important for us business owners—affordable application.

No Standardization

The infrastructure is also too expensive. The frustrated New Jersey client that suffered through the Blackberry/CRM mobile debacle also had to purchase a BlackBerry server and pay to get an in-house BlackBerry system setup. The whole shebang, including hardware, cost more than $10,000.

And why couldn't that CRM vendor get an app to work for businesses? They're not a bad company at all. But like many software vendors, they're stretched too thin. They don't have enough expertise in-house to develop mobile applications. Frankly, they don't have enough resources in-house to fix the bugs in their core product! And they definitely don't have the knowledge to troubleshoot and support different platforms and devices. They're trying to adapt to the changing market and serve their customers' demands for mobile applications. But they've entered a snake pit. And now their customers suffer.

Don't forget the devices. Just because some guy wrote a great lava lamp app for the iPhone doesn't mean it'll be as cool-looking on a Windows device (or will even work, for that matter). That's because not all devices are created equal. Besides different operating systems, some have different-sized screens, and others have different keyboard layouts. Some come with a standard amount of memory. Others behave erratically under certain conditions, such as excessive heat or cold.

And no matter what the wireless carriers would have us believe, there's still not enough bandwidth to run mobile applications productively. Just ask the appliance repair guy. My bet is that he's still trying to do a work order on his handheld.

Let the Big Guys Work It Out

There are ways to get around the bandwidth problem. But that means providing some kind of offline access to data. Which then means synchronizing the data back to a central server. So if you want to go down this road, break out the Jack Daniels. Because I don't know any application that syncs information to other applications, let alone mobile devices, with 100% accuracy. It's one thing to synchronize contacts or phone numbers, maybe. But bringing over more operational data, updating them, and then returning the data back to the source, by multiple people from different devices, is challenging. And given the track record of most of our software companies, don't expect that process to work 100%, either.

So when it comes to mobile applications, what should a small business do? Avoid them for now. Let the bigger guys work it all out. They've got more resources. They've got excellent substance abuse programs for their IT people who will be driven to drink. Larger companies will continue to invest in mobile applications because they like to spend lots of money to keep busy and demonstrate to shareholders how forward-thinking they are. As a result, those software companies that figure out a standardization for connecting various disparate databases to mobile devices will emerge as reliable mobile app players, and others will disappear. Device makers will partner with these winners and together mass-produce good software that will be affordable for small businesses. This will take a little time, maybe even a few years, but it'll be worth the wait.

In the meantime, my company continues to rely on laptops and netbooks. We get online at Starbucks (SBUX) and Borders (BGP) and do our thing using remote desktop tools like Windows Terminal Services and GoToMyPC, made by Citrix (CTX). These products work. They're reliable. They have wide support. And they're affordable. Our phones are used for phone calls, e-mails, and text-messaging. And a few bunny farts, too.

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