Comparing mobile operating systems and application environments

Each mobile operating system has a different application environment, but that could be more of an advantage for businesses than a detriment.

With so many different mobile operating system options available, end users and IT administrators have to deal with the fact some can't run the same software as others -- or as a desktop PC at the office.

Despite the issues that each application environment presents for working with traditional business applications, device-specific app stores make it easy for users to create their own workarounds. And IT can't easily force legacy applications to fit on the mobile operating systems making their way into the enterprise today.

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Businesses are frustrated by the widespread adoption of these consumer-friendly mobile operating systems, which have nearly zero support for the legacy line-of-business (LOB) applications in use today. As of this writing, for example, there is only a rumored release of native Microsoft Office applications for mobile devices (besides Windows phones and tablets). Though the Office suite's dominance is on increasingly shaky ground as end users find ways to get work done without Office, it would take years before many businesses would shed their reliance upon it.

Many corporations are heavily invested in expensive Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems, which have missing or dated support for the new class of consumer gadgets. And ERP costs companies time and money to upgrade. Even as market leaders such as Oracle and SAP update their products to include mobile support, mobile operating system and device upgrades come much faster than vendors are capable of keeping up with. Ham-handed solutions, such as running Windows applications with Remote Desktop Protocol, Citrix HDX or other desktop virtualization clients on mobile platforms yield a mostly unusable experience.

Workers who are fed up with this situation don't wait for answers; they turn to their devices' application stores. Instead of running Office on an iPad, for example, there's QuickOffice. Or, for people who don't need the bloated feature set of Microsoft Word and want to easily share documents with others, there's Evernote. And when employees need to whip up an expense report, Concur comes to the rescue.

Comparing application environments: The 500-pound gorillas

Apple iOS and Android each boast more than 700,000 available applications in their respective app stores, and while one may have a native app the other does not, it's usually not long before they catch up with each other. Their large installed bases drive new native application development away from alternatives.

iOS: The iPad is by far the most dominant tablet on the market today, and the iPhone commands a healthy chunk of the smartphone market. But while many LOB applications now run in a Web browser instead of a Win32 program, few business applications were designed with Apple's Safari compatibility in mind. HTML5 could hold the answer to getting a business application on to any mobile operating system with a compliant browser such as Safari.

Android: Android brings more flexibility to running business applications than iOS does because Google allows latitude with hardware manufacturers. Manufacturers can make their own customizations and enhancements to the Android distribution. Choosing a browser to run business apps isn't a problem because there are many options available for Android devices, including Google Chrome (which recently became available for iOS) and Mozilla Firefox.

Other application environments of interest

Windows: Native versions of Office are available on Windows RT tablets and Windows Phone. But RT-powered tablets, such as the Microsoft Surface, can't run traditional x86 Windows applications. Windows Phone apps are almost as scarce as RT versions. In companies where Office compatibility is paramount, then these platforms will have much stronger appeal. The Internet Explorer (IE) 10 browser may have HTML5 support, plus improved compatibility with IE-specific Web applications.

Because Windows 8 now supports the multitouch display spec of today's devices, it qualifies as a player to watch. The value proposition of running Windows 8 on a tablet is that it's a bridge between the well-known Windows desktop and the touch interface of today. New hardware is emerging that includes notebooks that convert to tablets, but true touch-optimized applications are in short supply. And if a user has a Surface Pro, which is a tablet that can run most Windows apps, IE and Office, does he need to have an iPad, too?

BlackBerry: Research In Motion (RIM) is another dark horse, but still boasts a significant base of BlackBerry OS users. About 40,000 apps are available. The Playbook tablet runs the BlackBerry Tablet OS variant. Version 2.0 of this mobile operating system also added the capability to allow Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) applications to run in a sandboxed environment on the tablet. RIM is preparing to release its BlackBerry 10 OS for the handheld phone, which features a native HTML5-capable browser and promises 100,000 apps to be available at launch.

Deciding on an application environment comes down to the specific use case. IT and other tech decision makers shouldn't try to fit the square legacy application peg in the round consumer operating system hole. Consider the merits of workers being more productive with the applications, devices and mobile operating systems they actually prefer to use to get their work done. As native and HTML5 versions of legacy business apps inevitably arrive, you may find that users don't need them.

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