Aeroprise Eases Wireless AppDev for Developers

A small Silicon Valley software firm may have "cracked the code" for developers when it comes to wireless app dev and integration. The key, say execs from Aeroprise, is simple: Don't rewrite the enterprise app for the device -- instead, bring the device to the app. See how an Aeroprise approach can pare hundreds of man-hours, and thousands of dollars, from your enterprise wireless project.

Tags: Developers, Mobile, Aeroprise, Wireless, App, Chandrasekaran, Applications,

A small Silicon Valley software firm may have "cracked the code" for developers when it comes to wireless app dev and integration. The key, say execs from Aeroprise, is simple: Don't rewrite the enterprise app for the device -- instead, bring the device to the app.

Engineers at Aeroprise in Mountain View, Calif., have devised a wireless application deployment and integration platform (called the "Mobile Workflow Management" platform), that provides devs an end-to-end infrastructure for building and distributing wireless apps. MWM also uses a web-driven way to customize end-user mobile GUIs to drive down cost and complexity.

"Our approach lets developers avoid rewriting legacy apps for mobile devices by providing them with a way to leverage applications they already know how to use," Aeroprise co-founder Anand Chandrasekaran told IDN.

In specific, Aeroprise's MWM infrastructure exposes the legacy assets (data, interface, rules) through a web portal, which provides users a web-based "personalization console" that lets them customize the GUI they want from their mobile device directly from their desktop. Aeroprise currently ships plug-in adapters to support mobilization of Remedy and Pinnacle applications, with a plug-in for Frontier Software's HEAT application on the way in early 2004.

Inside Aeroprise's MWM Components
The Aeroprise infrastructure brings together several key components to reduce the time and money (as well as the trial and error) associated with conventional mobile app development.

These components are:
  • communications infrastructure;
  • Application-specific APIs for drawing out (and updating) data; and
  • A browser-based delivery system that can "push" applications and data across a wide variety of networks to a wide variety of mobile clients including PDAs, cellphones, etc.

  • In specific, Aeroprise's infrastructure includes the following components:

    • Mobile Gateway Server: This integration software package bridges the end-user devices (PDA, cellphone, etc.) to the back-end application via Aeroprise's in-house plug-ins to custom database applications or off-the-shelf products like Remedy's Action Request System. The MGS is located within the firewall and between the desktop application and the mobile device. Users interact with the server through user licenses that provide access to the Personalization Console.

    • Administration Console: The Admin Console enables the administrator to install Aeroprise adapters and integrate them with existing desktop apps (custom built or out of the box). Multiple desktop apps and servers are supported. Configuration and maintenance are both made easy using a "point and click" interface.

    • Personalization Console: End users can specify their own preferences. They can configure their own mobile experience and change it using the easy and intuitive web-based console.

    • Wireless interface/Actionable Alerts: Aeroprise seamlessly combines "push" and "pull" on the wireless front end. Users can predefine what they want to receive wirelessly using the console and then take action on that information in the field.
    The Aeroprise infrastructure also eliminates the need for developers to write code for different form factors. Aeroprise's MWM infrastructure software also includes a database of profiles for many commonly-used mobile devices, which means developers don't have to worry about customizing data for different users' displays.

    "To make sure that all the data fits nicely into the end users' specific device, we have 'device profiles' for dozens of popular devices, including PDAs and cellphones with browsers," Chandrasekaran told IDN. "When the user logs on from his Nextel phone, for example, our server can tell it is a Nextel and [it] has a 4-line display."

    The Aeroprise solution will work within an enterprise using conventional WLAN hardware, or can be configured to work within and outside the enterprise campus using cellular data infrastructure services provided by carriers, such as Openwave's Mobile Application Gateway.

    By working with Openwave, Aeroprise can provide users secure access to their mobile data without letting it go beyond the firewall, according to Aeroprise CEO Dan Turchin. Because Aeroprise can link its MWM directly into the Openwave MAG, alerts can be sent from cellular carriers via Openwave infrastructure that resides at the carrier. Also, the user can access his web-based Persoanlization Console from any Internet-connected desktop.

    Inside the 'Build Wireless' Decision
    Customers considering a wireless projectwonder: "How much do I need this feature? ""Users feel they need to ask because the initial project can take 4-6 months, and often the end result can't be easily reconfigured or updated," Chandrasekaran said. To make modifying applications easy for customers, Aeroprise uses open web technologies and application adapters.

    "In other words, we get the developers out of having to worry about the 'last mile' of programming -- device and network-specific parameters -- and that 's one of our biggest attractions to developers," Chandrasekaran said. Looking at some of Aeroprise's research, it's easy to see why this approach is gaining traction, especially among integration developers.

    What developers, or their managers, don't always realize is that user requirements for mobile workers change more frequently than they do for desktop workers. "There's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all [for] mobile applications," Chandrasekaran said. "In fact, the need to continually change the look and feel of a mobile application is one of the main reasons they're so expensive to build, and why many IT managers don't seem to feel they're getting enough ROI." .

    With this as a backdrop, Aeroprise says there are 4 key steps to "mobilizing" an application. They are:

  • Identifying which applications need to be mobilized;
  • Selecting a list of fields that are available in the default view and can be personalized by end users;
  • Identifying which users need access to which mobile applications; and
  • Defining default mobile workflow for the users.

  • Wireless Future: Configuration vs. Hand-Coding?
    These points from Aeroprise may suggest that the wireless app dev process feels more like reconfiguration than hands-on coding. Well, it should.

    Presenting data and rules via APIs and plug-ins that can be presented via the web means several benefits to users and developers, including:
  • Apps can be more personalized;
  • Apps, data and even complex business rules/alerts can be accessed and redesigned more quickly and cheaply, and
  • Mobile/browser access can be made available to a wider group of users at virtually no added cost (in development or updating).

  • The end result makes end users happier with your developer teams.

    Aeroprise surveyed enterprise developers, and found many were unhappy with the satisfaction ratings they received from their end users. "From our research, helping developers keep up with constant changes in the needs of the mobile user is the biggest barrier to successful wireless [development and integration] projects," Chandrasekaran said.

    Turchin also remarked that many developers he speaks to admit that they're frustrated by some of the low satisfaction ratings they get from their mobile users -- some as low as 35-40 percent. A major reason satisfaction ratings run so low, according to Turchin, is that user requirements just keep changing. "What they really want today isn't the same thing they'll really want tomorrow or the next day," Chandrasekaran added.

    Because Aeroprise focuses on making UI changeability much easier and more cost-effective, developers can get a handle on those ever-changing end-user mobile requirements. The result, Turchin said, is that within weeks of deploying Aeroprise, those same developers say satisfaction ratings have soared to 80 or 90 percent because their users finally get to control how they interact with the application.

    So, why is UI the most important part of a mobile app? Chandrasekaran takes an example from a recent customer, a field technician on the campus of Northeastern University. "Let's say a user is working in Building 31 today. He really only needs to know about problems in his part of campus that he can fix. He doesn't want his [mobile] device cluttered with unnecessary data or features that won't help him today." .

    Aeroprise's Application-Specific Infrastructure
    The trick to providing such a thorough infrastructure, Chandrasekaran explained, was for Aeroprise to focus initially on support for one widely used application, one that had an untapped demand for a wireless/mobile user base.

    After researching the need for wireless/mobile access in the enterprise, Aeroprise chose IT Service Management (where upward of 80 percent of all users are deployed in the field at some point or another). Aeroprise works with leading vendors in the IT Service Management space, including Remedy (a unit of BMC Software), and is developing a MWM deployment for FrontRange Solutions HEAT management system, among others.

    "We build custom plug-ins and APIs from our components for desktop applications like Remedy," Chandrasekaran said. The result is that developers can then access data and rules from their applications, which they can web-enable in minutes. In turn, the web page can be the "landing page" for each user's mobile GUI. "From his browser, a developer or the end user can configure what data they want their mobile device to display," Chandrasekaran said.

    Aeroprise's MWM platform starts at $25,000, and includes all software and configuration components and APIs needed to mobilize desktop applications, transfer them to the web and make them accessible via a variety of mobile devices' custom browser UIs. Reconfiguration software for selecting/deselecting new UIs is also included, as well as support for both "push" alerts from the web and client-driven updates.

    Checklist: Ready for a Mobile/Wireless Dev Project?
    Aeroprise says that when you're ready to embark on your wireless project, you should first ask three simple questions:

  • What problem am I solving? There's a direct correlation between your ability to answer this question and the likelihood your project will succeed. Do you need to reduce resolution time? Improve customer service? Lower support costs? Decide first. You'll be glad you did.

  • How will mobility save my organization money or time, or generate new revenue? Set ambitious goals and make sure they're aligned with your organization's priorities. Resist the siren call of wireless and focus instead on how your project's success will be measured.

  • Who are the stakeholders? Understand who will benefit and why, how they'll react to new behaviors, and what you'll need from them to succeed.

  • Note that these first three questions explicitly don't involve devices or networks or keystrokes or bandwidth. The questions are focused on looking for a definable problem that can be solved using a project development frame of reference. The more focused your answers to the above questions, the more likely the solution will be cost-effective, quick to build and deploy and can be accomplished using in-house staff and a minimum budget outlay.