By Clive Howard, Principal Analyst, Creative Intellect Consulting
A few months back, I registered for Mobile World Congress 2015 in Barcelona. As an Analyst, there is a different registration process to the one used for regular attendees. This is so the organisers can validate that someone is a legitimate industry analyst. As well as entering a significant amount of personal data, additional information such as links to published work and document uploads are also required. Crucially, there are a number of screens to complete the registration and accreditation process. But more to the point, many different types of data must be entered – from single and multiple line text entry to file uploads. Some data (such as hyperlinks) requires cut and pasting.
I’m sure that I could have done this using a mobile phone but it would have taken a long time, been awkward and irritating and probably highly prone to mistakes. In short, I would never have considered doing something like this using my phone. Could I have used a tablet? Without a keyboard and mouse it would have been problematic, especially if the screen is small. Using a tablet only Operating System might also have had its problems in places: such as uploading documents from centrally managed systems. Actually I did use a tablet but one connected to a 20inch monitor, keyboard and mouse and running Windows. In that traditional desktop looking environment the process was relatively quick and painless.
Rumours of the desktop’s demise are greatly exaggerated
It is not just complex data entry scenarios such as this that challenge mobile devices. Increasingly I see people attach keyboards to their tablets and even phones. Once one moves beyond writing a Tweet or one line email many mobile devices start to become a pain to use. The reality of our lives, especially at work, is that we often have to enter data into complex processes. Mobile can be an excellent complement, but not a replacement. This is why we see so many mobile business apps providing only a tiny subset of functionality found in the desktop alternative; or they are apps that extend desktop application capabilities rather than replicate or replace them.
One vendor known for their mobile first mantra recently showed off a preview version for one of its best known applications. This upgrade has been redesigned from the ground up. When I asked if it worked on mobile the answer was no, they added (quite rightly) no one is going to use this application on a mobile device. These situations made me think about how over the last couple of years we have heard relentlessly about designing “mobile first”. As developers we should build for mobile and then expand out to the desktop. The clear implication has been that the desktop’s days are over.
This is very far from the truth. Not only will people continue to support the vast number of legacy desktop applications but will definitely be building new ones. Essentially, there will continue to be applications that are inherently “desktop first”. This statement should not be taken to mean that desktop application development remains business as usual. A new desktop application may still spawn mobile apps and need to support multiple operating systems and form factors. It may even need to engage in the Internet of Things.
The days of building just for the desktop safe in the knowledge that all users will be running the same PC environment (down to the keyboard style and monitor size) are gone in many if not the majority of cases. Remember that a desktop application may still be a browser based application, but one that works best on a desktop. And with the growth of devices such as hybrid laptop/tablet combinations, a desktop application could still have to work on a smaller screen that has touch capabilities.
It’s the desktop, but not as we know it
Developers will equally need to become familiar with working against web services APIs instead of the more traditional approach where application code talked directly to a database. They will also need to be able to create APIs for others to consume. Pulling applications together from a disparate collection of micro services (some hosted in the cloud) will become de rigueur. If they do not have skills that span different development platforms then they will at least need to have an appreciation for them. One of the problems with mobile development inside enterprise has been developers building SOAP Web Services without knowing how difficult these have been to consume from iOS apps. Different developers communities will need to engage with one another far more than they have done in the past.
Those who work with the data layer will not be spared change. Big Data will affect the way in which some data is stored, managed and queried, while NoSQL data stores will become more commonplace. The burden placed on data stores by major increases in the levels of access caused by having more requests coming from more places will require highly optimised data access operations. The difference between data that is accessed a lot for read-only purposes and data which needs to be changed will be highly significant. We are seeing this with banking apps where certain data such as a customer’s balance will be handled differently compared to data involved in transactions. Data caching, perhaps in the cloud, is a popular mechanism for handling the read-only data.
Continuation of the Testing challenge
Testing will need to take into account the new architecture, design paradigms and potential end user scenarios. Test methodologies and tools will need to adapt and change to do this. The application stack is becoming increasingly complex. A time delay experienced within the application UI may be the result of a micro service deep in the system’s backend. Testing therefore needs to cover the whole stack – a long time challenge for many tools out there on the market – and the architects and developers will need to make sure that failures in third party services are managed gracefully. One major vendor had a significant outage of a new Cloud product within the first few days of launch due to a dependency on a third party service and they had not accounted for failure.