Is It Too Soon To Talk Enterprise Mobile Ecosystems?

For the past couple of weeks, owing to a mishap, I’m temporarily switching from my Nexus 4 to a loaned Lumia 520. I’m no stranger to Windows Phone, and I’m not really missing any apps. I do miss the tight-knit Google ecosystem, though, and that got me thinking about the implications the concept of mobile ecosystem has for the enterprise market. Read on for my thoughts on this.

The Push Towards Ecosystems

In the consumer market, apps don’t cut it anymore.  “There’s an app for that” hast lost much of its allure (see here, for example), and hence we are being treated to a greater focus on the “ecosystem” concept as a sort of second wave of the mobile revolution.  Although having more and newer apps for your platform is an essential building block to mobile relevancy (witness Windows Phone vs BlackBerry), the new battle lines are about seamlessly and contextually integrating your services into the user experience.  As an example, see Microsoft’s upcoming “Cortana” personal assistant and Internet Explorer 11 tab syncing, both logical next steps for its efforts in mobile; and the recent purchases of Nest by Google and WhatsApp by Facebook, which some think effectively turns these companies into conglomerates.

What About the Enterprise Market?

The key thing about these ecosystems’ push is that they are locked to the respective companies that provide them; when people commit to an ecosystem, the main beneficiary is the ecosystem provider.  What about your own organization?  While it may be more than welcome required to publish appropriate mobile apps to the major stores, or develop and deploy them internally to maximize the efficiency of certain operations, it cannot easily tap into these tightly integrated ecosystems.  And that may mean that whatever mobile woes you think you are going through are only going to get worse a few years down the road.

Think about it.  If your organization is relatively large and old, chances are at some point you went through some integration or consolidation project that sought to reduce the number of steps and/or applications that a given business role, Customer Service for instance, had to perform or use.  You’ve probably been through several transition architectures (some better planned than others) to remove redundancy, enhance integration and seamlessly support operations.  With mobile, it is more than probable than you’re starting over the same inadequate way: either developing vertical, isolated apps for each business function to be automated, or attempting a single, massive app that seeks to coherently integrate all functions, while struggling with basic concerns like being able to easily and privately receive push notifications, comply with security restrictions, etc.

In the meantime, the mainstream market is moving away from apps as the primary focus, into deeper and more contextual aspects of the experience.  Is it really too soon to talk about enterprise mobile ecosystems?

What The Future May Hold

I’ll end this post by outlining a few ways into which organizations may be able to tap into the ecosystem vision of mobile computing over the next few years:

  • Building their own ecosystem: while open source mobile systems such as Android make this possible in theory, in practice it is a large, complicated endeavor.  The poster children here are Amazon and Nokia.  Plenty of lesser-known companies may have tinkered with custom builds of Android, some for internal use, though I’d venture most of it revolves around security, performance or other non-functional requirements, rather than enhancing and customizing the ecosystem experience for company users
  • Strategically exploiting the behaviors and mechanisms of existing ecosystems: Google Now can scan your email and generate notifications and other interactions based on your flight plans, ordered/shipped goods, frequent routes, etc.  Microsoft will supposedly also have this soon.  By analyzing how these companies are mining user information to build their interaction services, your organization may hone the way it serves and makes such information discoverable to these mechanisms.  The obvious downsides are potential lack of competitive advantage, and difficulty or incapability to exploit this for internal and potentially sensitive apps and transactions
  • Partnering with the ecosystem providers: at a large scale, this is already going on: Google relies on several external partners to field much of the information its Now service provides, such as weather updates from The Weather Channel.  Your company may be in the position to become one such partner to an established ecosystem provider.  For other scenarios, particularly involving private internal data, these companies may eventually provide secure and isolated entry points into key mechanisms of their ecosystems — think Google Apps for Business being extended with “Google Now Connectors”, ways for your own apps and data to integrate and interact across devices and platforms.  Either way, I suspect providers won’t make this easily interoperable across competing ecosystems, seeking to entangle organizations to specific vendors or product lines, same as with consumers today

How mature are your mobile endeavors?  Do you feel pressure to implement ecosystem-type solutions for your organization?  I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on this topic.

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