It’s never quite the same second time around

By Dale Vile

If you see the phrase ‘anytime, anyplace, anywhere’ in relation to mobile access, and are tempted to point out the language redundancy (“surely ‘anyplace’ and ‘anywhere’ mean the same thing”), then you are probably not old enough to have lived through the birth of client-server in the late 80’s and early 90’s. If cheesy ads for Martini are now in your head, however, you probably were there, and can recall just how client-server began and ultimately panned out.

You’ll remember how liberating it all seemed, for example. Business groups and departments no longer had to wait in line to get their requirements dealt with by the high priests of the mainframe or the custodians of the VAX, the HP3000 or whatever other mini-computer central IT had adopted. Chuck an Oracle database onto a unix server, do a bit of that new-fangled ‘4GL’ development, fire up a few workstation clients, and you were sorted. And that ‘GUI’ then running on your desktop was so much nicer to use than the old green screen terminals – a massive leap forward in usability.

Over the years, of course, realisation dawned that client-server brought with it as many problems as it did benefits. As the numbers and types of client machines multiplied, developers ended up having to develop and test for a whole range of workstation specs and environments, and when something changed, operations staff had to worry about getting new versions of software out to every desktop. Add the complexity of support, and users discovering that an intelligent client with local storage meant they could create their own little offline empire, and it wasn’t long before the overhead, costs and risks began to escalate.

Following a period of re-centralisation using Web-based architectures, it looks as if we are beginning to come full circle in many respects. When some of us old timers see how the next generation is getting all excited about using mobile apps as front-ends for accessing services across the network, we can’t help thinking about the parallels with the past.

Just as it was two decades ago, people are talking about ease of use, flexibility and how great it is to be able to store your stuff locally, or even copy central data from the network so it’s available offline when you need it. With these new intelligent devices (this time light-weight notebooks, tablets and smart phones) so much can be done to liberate users from the clutches of those kill-joys in the IT department (sound familiar?)

But things are arguably a bit more challenging this time around, at least when viewed from an IT perspective.

With regard to end-point proliferation, it’s not just about choosing whether to support the iPad, iPhone, popular Android devices, less popular Android devices, old Windows 7 phones, new Windows 8 phones, Windows 8 RT, BlackBerries, Symbian phones, etc (phew). The evolution of mobile devices is driven by consumer-calibrated release cycles (with devices superseded within 3-6 months), which means each platform is a moving target in its own right. Topping it off, we then have BYOD and cloud storage services like DropBox to consider. All of this creates a set of challenges that makes traditional client-server look easy-peasy by comparison.

But surely we have as our friend that ubiquitous access mechanism known as the browser. With a few tweaks of the server based application to deal with different screen sizes and browser standards on the other side of the network, and in the knowledge that all data stays on the server, can’t we be pretty relaxed about all that client-side diversity? If only that were the case.

Back in the real world, the fast and reliable connectivity upon which this model depends just isn’t there in most countries at the moment – hence you quickly get back to local applications and offline data storage, with a heavy reliance on replication and synchronisation for more critical applications. At least HTML5 and cross-platform development and execution environments are now with us though, to save us from all of that historical overhead associated with client-side software – or are they?

The debate continues to rage on about whether HTML5 cuts it, and whether cross platform environments represent too much risk of lock-in, not to mention user interface compromises so those native apps keep accumulating. The emergence of Mobile Device Management (MDM) and Mobile Application Management (MAM) solutions that allow us to monitor and control everything out there can help with this, and clearly have a role to play, but the truth is that it’s all pretty fluid at the moment, with many having more questions than answers.

In the meantime, the genie is out of the bottle with regard to user expectations of Martini-style access and BYOD, so IT departments can’t wait too long to figure out how to enable as much user freedom as possible while keeping costs and risks under control.

Arguably the most immediate need is to deal with that most basic of requirements in the mobile context – email. Here, at least, the combination of messaging standards (both de-jure and de-facto), Webmail interfaces, and back-ends that better support large inboxes (to minimise the need for client-side storage), provide an increasing number of workable options.

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