Expert offers tips for finding the right mobile SaaS applications

Enterprises have several different options for mobile SaaS applications. Expert Bill Claybrook takes them through the pros and cons.

Editor's Note: Enterprises today have plenty of mobile Software as a Service (SaaS) offerings to choose from. SaaS providers, such as Salesforce.com, SalesNOW and SugarCRM, develop most of the prefabricated mobile SaaS apps that enterprises use to help run their businesses. However some companies, such as Softserve and others, also offer alternative packages that enable corporate developers to implement their own highly customized mobile...

SaaS applications. Regardless of which approach an organization takes, it's important to follow best practices and be aware of the pros and cons of the different types of mobile SaaS applications.

When Software as a Service (SaaS) applications were first developed, they were accessed via desktop browsers and application data was stored in databases in the provider's cloud. To be successful in this environment, SaaS providers had to support as many browsers as possible. But with the growing popularity of smartphones and other mobile devices, vendors eventually expanded beyond desktop-only access and began providing mobile SaaS apps that could be accessed from smartphones, tablets or any other device with a browser.

Developers and applications providers have recognized that there are several limitations associated with the process of developing mobile SaaS apps that are accessed via mobile device browsers. Those limitations include minimal access to on-device features, such as compass, camera and notifications, and they have led software makers to focus on the development of SaaS applications that are accessed via an interface that resides natively on the mobile device.

Rather than being accessed through a browser, native SaaS applications boast an interface that resides on the mobile device itself, and any information entered into the system via that interface is typically auto-synced with data on the SaaS cloud and vice versa.

Developers who want their applications to access mobile device features -- and who want to provide cross-platform support for many different mobile devices -- should consider taking a hybrid approach. Such apps can be access via a browser but also can be run inside a native container on a mobile device.

Mobile SaaS trends

Cambridge, Mass.-based IT analyst firm Forrester Research Inc. has forecast that SaaS revenue will far exceed the revenue of Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Platform as a Service (PaaS) offerings. The research firm also predicts that vendors' total SaaS revenues will reach $92.8 billion by 2016. This is more than 25% of the entire packaged software market.

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One of the reasons for this huge revenue is mobile SaaS. A report by the Boston research firm Strategy Analytics predicts that small and medium-sized businesses alone will spend about $3.7 billion on mobile SaaS applications in 2012. IT research firm Gartner predicts that by 2014, 90% of organizations will support corporate applications on consumer mobile devices.

Forrester, commenting on the current state of mobile customer relationship management (CRM) solutions, said in a white paper that the gap between the functionality available via desktop and mobile CRM apps is far from being bridged. Vendors sometimes adopt a single-device or single operating system strategy, limiting the range of devices and operating systems available to users of SaaS CRM apps. These comments are also applicable to other mobile-device-based SaaS applications and not just mobile CRM apps alone.

Many of the leading SaaS applications vendors that focus on medium to large enterprises support mobile access to their SaaS apps. They are also working to upgrade their capabilities and keep up with the newest devices and operating systems mobile workers want to use.

Importance of different types of mobile SaaS apps

Each type of mobile SaaS app has its pros and cons. Most of the leading SaaS providers will offer all three types of mobile SaaS applications -- apps that are accessed via browser, apps that are accessed via native container, and hybrid apps.  

Users choosing apps that are accessed via a browser do not have to worry about downloading updates to mobile devices. The SaaS app is running on the provider's cloud and is accessed from a mobile device's browser, just like desktop access of SaaS, although it may be slower.

Users looking for a polished interface to mobile SaaS employing some of the on-device features such as notifications, location and sound would opt for the SaaS application that offers an interface that resides natively on the mobile device.

Users that want the apps to access mobile device features, but who also want to reach a wide audience, may want to consider a hybrid approach.

There is a disagreement among some SaaS providers and developers over the need for a browser on the mobile device to utilize SaaS apps. As mentioned before, several of the SaaS providers give customers client software that runs as natively on the mobile device. This software contains the SaaS native app and accesses data stored on the SaaS cloud or wherever it is located as needed. The client software replaces the mobile device browser as the means to utilize the SaaS app. The user downloads this client software from an app store. When the SaaS app is updated, the user is notified and can download the updated version when time permits.

Some developers feel that mobile device browsers are the lowest common denominator among different mobile devices with different operating systems. They argue that productivity in a browser depends on constant connectivity and even when connected, mobile device browsers provide limited control compared to dedicated native apps running on the device.

Hardware limitations of mobile SaaS

There are a number of hardware concerns with using mobile SaaS and they all affect the productivity of corporate employees:

  • Limited bandwidth for transmitting or receiving data to and from SaaS cloud servers
  • Intermittent connection
  • Limited battery life
  • Limited memory
  • Limited CPU power

Best practices

Organizations mulling the prospect of buying or building a mobile SaaS app will want to keep some best practices in mind.

Choose a mobile SaaS provider or mobile SaaS software development kit (SDK) that supports the mobile devices that your customers and employees will be using. This is especially important if your company has a "bring your own device" strategy in place. Some mobile SaaS providers and SDKs support a limited number of mobile devices.
Keep in mind that SaaS applications with native interfaces on mobile devices are highly polished, but the user has to download client software and then remember to keep it updated.

Companies should also ask themselves if browser-based mobile SaaS apps will support all of the use cases within the organization.

It's also important to understand the costs for licensing of apps to be deployed on mobile devices. Find out if there is a difference in licensing costs for the three types of mobile SaaS applications being offered.

Do not ignore corporate culture. The use of mobile devices directly affects the processes and strategies for doing company business. Clearly define the benefits of mobile SaaS to employees.

Understand the value of providing offline SaaS capabilities. Some mobile SaaS users may work in areas where connectivity is intermittent or unavailable for various time periods. These workers should be able to continue to be productive even without connectivity and then sync at a later time.

Finally, remember to implement mobile device security procedures. Many SaaS apps running on mobile devices or accessing SaaS apps through a mobile device browser are moving important business data between the device and the SaaS provider cloud.

This was first published in November 2012

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