Cloud services spur mobile enterprise apps

Some enterprises are finding that cloud-based applications make it possible to roll out mobile enterprise apps

Mobilizing enterprise apps is nothing new, yet beyond e-mail and a few other horizontal applications, it's still a niche market. But combining the cloud with the newest generation of smartphones is just starting to change that.

Juniper Research expects the total market for cloud-based mobile apps to grow 88 per cent between 2009 and 2014. About 75 per cent of that market will be enterprise users, Juniper predicts.

An ABI Research study from a year ago predicts that a new architecture for mobile apps based on the cloud will drastically change the way mobile apps are developed, acquired and used. Cloud services can make it easier for developers by minimizing the amount of code they have to customize for each of the phone platforms. "This trend is in its infancy today, but ABI Research believes that eventually it will become the prevailing model for mobile applications," ABI Research analyst Mark Beccue wrote in the report.

Connecting a mobile app to a cloud-based service has other upsides for enterprises, said John Barnes, CTO of Model Metrics, a company that develops mobile apps that work in conjunction with Salesforce.com and Amazon Web Services. "One advantage of these cloud platforms is you can synch from the mobile device to the cloud without intermediate servers or a VPN," he said.

That means deployment can be simpler for companies that don't want to manage in-house servers that support the mobile app.

Salesforce is one cloud provider aiming to make it easier for businesses to mobilize their cloud-based services. "We see that mobile devices are changing how business applications are deployed," said Ariel Kelman, vice president, platform product marketing at Salesforce.com. Salesforce offers APIs and toolkits to help businesses extend applications they've build on Force.com to the iPhone or BlackBerry phones.

Rehabcare is one organization that used those tools to build an application for its workers. Based in St. Louis, Rehabcare owns and operates 34 hospitals nationwide and also operates more than 1,000 facilities on behalf of hospital owners.

The mobile application built on Force.com allows Rehabcare to be more competitive when bidding for patients, Dick Escue, CIO for the company, said. Typically, when a patient is being discharged from a hospital but needs further care, the hospital will put out a broad call to all nearby facilities asking if they want to care for the patient.

In the past, one worker in each of Rehabcare's markets was responsible for filling in a seven page form about the patient by hand and faxing it to the medical directors at Rehabcare facilities who would then decide whether to take on the new patient. It was a time consuming process that was dependant on the legibility of the worker's handwriting and on the medical director seeing the fax as soon as it came in.

"In our CEO's opinion, we were taking way too long to respond to these referrals," he said.

The CEO charged Escue with building an iPhone app that would speed up the process. Escue's initial reaction was: "We don't know how to write an iPhone app. We don't even know who in St. Louis to call to write an iPhone app."

But Escue happened to be signed up to attend a forthcoming Salesforce Dreamforce conference where he heard other CIOs talk about mobile applications they built using Force.com.

By the time Escue returned to the office from the conference, his team had downloaded Salesforce's developer toolkit, created an automated form and could show it to Escue running on an iPhone, he said.

Using the iPhone app instead of the paper-based system has cut down the patient referral process from an average of six to eight hours to one to two, he said.

"We don't care if the medical director is in the office or near a fax, as soon as the screen is completed he gets an e-mail," he said.

Rehabcare can now also run reports in order to view how long it takes for medical directors to respond to those e-mails and how many referrals the company gets.

Rehabcare has also deployed a second mobile app that accesses a service based in the cloud. It has outfitted thousands of therapists with iPod Touches that they use to access an application written and hosted by Casamba. Rehabcare worked closely with Casamba to build the mobile product, Escue said.

The therapists use the app to view their schedules, look up patient information and start and stop their time clocks. By the end of the year, Rehabcare hopes to have deployed 8,000 iPod Touches so that therapists can use the application.

The company is looking at the possibility of using Android phones in the future, but for now they don't offer the kinds of security features required to comply with Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act regulations, he said. Rehabcare went with iPod Touches rather than iPhones to cut out expensive monthly subscriptions. Most therapists work out of the same facility day after day and have access to Wi-Fi there, he said.

Critical Systems is another company that has started using an iPhone app that works in conjunction with a service hosted in the cloud.

Critical Systems inspects fire alarm systems. In the past, inspectors would visit a building and input data about the fire alarms into an Excel spreadsheet. At the end of the week, the inspector would drop a disk off at the Critical Systems office where Jim Boudreaux, a developer at the Atlanta-based company, would print the reports and then manually color code each tested device in a CAD file, based on whether the device passed or failed the inspection.

It would sometimes take three months to send a report about the inspection to the customer. "There were lots of redundancies, bottlenecks and frustration," he said.

Boudreaux started by developing a Salesforce implementation that would let the inspectors input and store their inspection data in Salesforce. He experimented with using laptops but found they weren't ideal. They were too bulky for the inspector in the building to carry.

Boudreaux then planned to build an application that he would host internally that would allow inspectors in the field to use a smartphone to input data. But then an outside contractor happened to mention that he could consider using Salesforce tools to make a mobile application.

That's what Boudreaux ultimately did. His inspectors now fill out a form on their iPhones, noting the status of each fire alarm. The form automatically updates the graphic floor plan, color coding the alarm on the graphic based on its status. "At the end of the day, they e-mail a PDF to the client," he said, dramatically cutting down the former three-month-long process.

Critical Systems has six inspectors using the iPhone app. Boudreaux is also hoping to have one iPad that the inspectors share, using it when they visit a location for the first time. At the first visit, the inspectors create the graphic representation of the building, a process that's easier on the larger screen of the iPad, he said.

Both Critical Systems and Rehabcare found that using cloud-based applications made delivering and supporting mobile apps far easier than if they tried to host the app internally.

"The combination of Salesforce and the iPhone -- I'm just shocked more people aren't using it," Boudreaux said.

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