Sharing is good. How will mobile apps play nice?

With Apple’s announcement of 3D Touch and a split-screen capability on the new larger iPad Apple is setting the stage for a new era, centered on new ways of interacting with information and apps. By allowing users to see more than one set of things at once a key friction is removed, and it’s clear how a number of different workflow and entertainment situations can improve with this sort of sharing. What’s less clear is how this will work in practice with the existing modes that mobile apps have been built towards. A glimpse into another app is going to require permissions and data sharing between apps, and as users start to see different apps at the same time how long before they expect drag and drop level interaction? Obviously you can accomplish that with text fields, but what about even basic structured data like dates. Sounds simple, but take a look at all the different (and fun) date pickers on different apps in your phone- how would you elegantly take a date from one of these apps and use it in another?
It’s been pointed out many times: we don’t really know what “an app” will mean in 3-5 years time (nice piece here, with a list of references). As more and more devices get connected (today the Apple Watch and other wearables, tomorrow the Internet of things) this will become more even pointed. Groups of apps from the same company doing different related things, perhaps on different devices, make sense, and can get connected “on the back end” but this get more and more cumbersome to manage. It was notable that the apps that were demoed in the 3D Touch part of the Apple Keynote this week were either internal to Apple, or the web. How will this work in a constellation of apps? This is important for the typical consumer user, critical for the enterprise.
Today, apps are (over)optimized for use on a single device, with dedicated user attention. The web on its own goes perhaps too far the other way, but there is a reason why we moved towards that as the standard “app platform” on the PC, especially for occasionally-used functionality. We would never have moved past AOL if users had to download an app for every single thing they wanted to do with the web.
Isn’t there a shared component model that exists? The mobile operating system should surely be this- it provides incredible functionality with consistent interfaces. Permissions and security rear their ugly heads here. Smart phones (and watches and cars) have permission controls for a reason, and we won’t just allow “the web” to access every capability of a device- or we might, but good luck with that mobile web banking experience with the biometric security which is now shared with every other site on the web. Though we routinely click through on permissions for apps, developers can’t simply assume that all the apps we are sharing, or looking at together, will have the same level of permissions- what if I explicitly don’t want one app to have location permissions, but the app I am 3D Touching from has such permissions, should the other app also get to know where I am?
There are some hints that sharing will become easier in app development. App Groups in iOS are a possible solution, but they are typically used for one organization to pull widgets (small components of functionality or information) into their own apps. App Groups are not set up for managing across corporate boundaries. The data sharing here can get complicated: I might be prepared to share customer delivery data with a partner, but not pricing information, for example. It’s also worth noting that today on the consumer side companies like Facebook and WeChat are already enabling versions of this sort of sharing, either through direct partnering for functionality, or with content as widgets within the core app experience (e.g. Facebook’s Instant Articles feature).
On the enterprise side apps typically come from a smaller set of vendors, but to deliver great experiences likely need to share more data than Instagram or Angry Birds. Salesforce, with its recently announced combined application development and distribution platform, and other enterprise mobile application platform providers like SAP, Kody and IBM may have an interesting opportunity here. Perhaps there is a chance that semi-walled gardens from these providers can encourage some limited permission and data sharing within their SDKs. Rather than expecting complete openness a controlled solution with trackable sharing might work; for example a customer identifier could be common between app in a multi-vendor app cluster. Certainly this opens an opportunity for app developers (enterprise and independent) to add value across ecosystems. Is IBM in the box seat with their previously announced enterprise work with Apple? We’ll see.
In conclusion, we are starting to see new interaction modes which are asking us to rethink what apps really are — and more to the point — how they may play with each other.

The organizational challenge of mobile app development

With mobile application development a persistent priority within the enterprise, most IT organizations find several common challenges among their efforts:

  • The creation of an effective, consumer-level, customer experience is not easy for many traditional developers.
  • Existing enterprise IT infrastructure does not lend itself to mobile applications support.
  • Mobile application development is not a one-time event, but rather a continuing process of ongoing innovation.

Customer experience presents one of the primary opportunities for a business to differentiate itself, and increasingly customers are interacting with companies via a mobile device. In many ways, the challenge is organizational, as IT departments struggle to gather the resources and create the environment required for successful mobile innovation.

Banks grapple with developing the mobile channel

Retail banking is one vertical where the greatest demands on mobile have converged: banks serve consumer and small business markets with complex, highly-regulated products that have the highest of security requirements.  Though mobile phones are consumer-oriented devices, banks in general have struggled to bring a consumer-level customer experience to their complicated mobile apps. But banks are investing heavily in the channel, and they are learning how to create an environment for successful app development and delivery.

Several recent developments in the financial sector provide indicators of how mobile application development can be both innovative and institutionalized:

  • NASDAQ has recognized the importance of the customer experience in using mobile applications, and as Wall Street Technology reports, has purposely brought in a cadre of designers far afield from banking technology to create their investor relations customer experience. The company decided it is better to bring in top-level designers and introduce them to financial services, than to take experienced financial services developers and introduce them to top-level design. Thus the firm formed a design team with experiences as diverse as online retail, Disney, Broadway theater, design agencies, and nonprofits. The team spent six months learning the NASDAQ business environment before creating its new app for investor relations professionals.  As Michael Cotter, the SVP of corporate solutions at NASDAQ OMX put it, “I think user experience is a strategic differentiator. I fully believe that the end user experience is what drives value.”
  • Similarly, the consumer driver app Uber has become something of a model for bank technologists. Uber was both the highest-rated non-financial mobile app among a panel of bankers and among the inspirations for JPMorgan Chase’s new mobile banking app.
  • From the other direction, banks are finding that aspects of their commercial-level applications can scale down for the consumer mobile banking market. Banks have already built applications that enable their commercial customers to see multiple accounts, keep running balances, make various types of transfers, and the like. Many of these same capabilities can be translated to consumer and small business products, and if they have been developed on a common mobile application platform, that translation is all the easier.
  • Even mid-sized banks are finding value in mobile application platforms. The MA-based Eastern Bank, with $8.7 billion in assets, opted for a mobile development platform to enable the firm to keep innovating with its mobile products. Development platforms will become viable for more SMEs as the tech market packages such innovation engines for smaller and smaller enterprises. This approach can be seen as part of a broader need to update financial services technology infrastructure.
  • A recent report on mobile banking highlights the receptivity found in the small office/home office (SOHO) market.  Just over a quarter of those surveyed were interested in a checking account package that included mobile banking and 62% of those were willing to pay a fee. Although the report apparently concludes that there is a great willingness to pay for mobile services, I expect that once the market (likely quickly) moves to mobile banking as a required, “check off” item, additional fees will not be welcome. A similar report shows that coming into the new year, the mobile channel represented 20% of merchants’ payments. That may not seem like great penetration, but it represents a doubling of volume over a 12-month period, and in that time the share of merchants accepting mobile payments more than doubled from 30% to 66%. Mobile banking as a share of online banking can probably be expected to increase at least as rapidly. And, there is of course a poll showing the importance of mobile to Gen Y’ers when selecting a bank: fully 78% say it is at least somewhat important.
  • Indeed, Bank of the West’s Quick Balance mobile app, which recently won the Monarch Innovation Award for most innovative financial service product/feature, targets the small business market. The app enables a customer to view five accounts simultaneously or, on an iPad, view up to 30 days of pending payments and eBills—capabilities traditionally provided only to commercial customers—as well as customized messages or promotional links. These commercial-level capabilities are combined with a consumer level of simplicity: no traditional login is required to access the multiple account view.


In sum, although banks have some scars for their early efforts and misses in designing customer-friendly mobile apps, their experience shows the following:

  • The mobile channel is inevitable for both consumer and business customers. A rapid adoption curve and changing demographics are transforming markets.
  • Simply assigning traditional engineers to design consumer-level apps is probably not a good solution, with nontraditional design engineers likely needed to provide the level of customer experience required: Consumerization is a trend to which IT departments must proactively adapt.
  • Infrastructure must be updated, and a modern development platform is critical not only for agile, continuing innovation, but also for the efficient leverage and integration of development components across applications and departments.
  • Although these requirements are first realized within large enterprises, vendors are increasingly packaging products to enable development and innovation for lower levels of the SME market as well.
  • Applications and IT departments that can combine sleek consumer design with institutional-level platforms and practices can effectively bring higher levels of products to lower levels of the market more effectively and efficiently.

IBM and MobileFirst: elephant or cheetah?

One of the most important attributes of the mobile app world is the need to be able to iterate fast. IBM’s MobileFirst portfolio might be the company’s attempt to develop and manage a mobile solution, but it cannot ever be as fast as the market demands.