My talk at Adobe MAX was about the future role of tablet devices in large organizations, and the impact of this new generation of devices on IT services. Tablets will rapidly become a tremendous business opportunity for Flex developers. I was happily surprised by the number of sessions about tablets at MAX. A lot of Flex developers such as Christophe gave some nice technical tips on how to develop engaging mobile apps. For my session, I wanted to give some tips but also to explain why tablet devices will play a key role.
When you look at how humans have interacted with enterprise knowledge over the years and even today, paper is still very present. You often interact directly with the knowledge on a horizontal plan using a pen, but this can hardly be centralized. Collaboration on a whiteboard is also an interesting case. You share and review the knowledge on a vertical plane. Often this knowledge is lost as collaboration is thought of as a temporary step in an enterprise workflow or a decision making process. These two interactions (paper and whiteboard) are still very common in large organizations, and that’s how we learn things at school. Personal computers introduced a different approach due to the rise of mice and keyboards. You move your mouse on an horizontal plane, it acts on a vertical plane that hosts the knowledge. For the first time the knowledge could be easily centralized and shared beyond the firewall (the extended company) with partners and external customers. Inspired by typewriters, PCs are not mobile at all, even less mobile than paper. The laptop was the first attempt of mobility. It automatically extended our work area and let us interact with the enterprise knowledge from home and on the road. But it also introduced some of the worst interactions ever (trackpad, balls, etc…). Smartphones are the real truly mobile device, the first that can answer the “anywhere and at any time” requirement. But the typing experience is bad and the small screens don’t let you review documents for instance. For all these reasons, you can see why tablets are a natural evolution. Although there’s still progress to be made, tablets are fully mobile, the typing experience is good, the large screen lets you review documents, and for the first time, and you can combine pleasure and work on the same device.
The rise of tablet devices in large organizations introduces new challenges for IT services. They have to define new processes to secure the configuration and deployment of apps, they have to ensure that mobile apps are auditable and compliant, and, most of all, they have to run existing applications. On the other side, end users are already tablet ninjas. That’s why there will be a gap between what IT services can deliver and users’ expectations. I also believe that native applications deliver the experience that people expect. If you deliver a classic web app on a tablet, employees won’t feel the benefits and they will wait until they are in front of a PC to interact with your app. By the way, I don’t think that tablet devices will replace laptops or PC. Sometimes, it will be complementary, and sometimes yes, there will be some cannibalization. If you look at the enterprise apps developed on tablets in 2011, they were mainly targeting three populations: the top managers, the sales force and the inspectors. Top managers need a real-time access to strategic information. They want dashboards to accelerate and improve their decision making time. The sales force uses tablets for two reasons. It’s a fantastic device to showcase the products you’re selling, and it’s also a nice way to interact with the CRM. Inspectors, or employees that need to audit external environments, are naturally using tablets to access technical information, capture data in the field and collaborate. Tomorrow, anyone is a potential tablet candidate. Even I as a developer, I can imagine having a tablet with a companion app, helping me browsing the AS3 doc for instance (I think that someone had this idea before me… more to come…).
Flex developers can answer these new needs very easily. We are in pole position. If we embrace a Design-Driven Development methodology, we’ll be very successful. DDD consists of defining the technical infrastructure of your solution based on the user experience. The UI is here to solve end users’ problems, and the system serves the UI. If you build a system-centric application on a tablet, with a UI that reflects the system, then you’ll fail. I hope that tablets will boost the Design-Driven methodology in large organizations. It would also increase the number of Rich Internet Applications. Today, RIA frameworks (and especially Flex) are much more mature than enterprise IT services. Even with the best technology, if IT services stick to their traditional way of developing products, they will fail again and again. Flex developers need to become DDD sponsors.
Here is the recording of my presentation. You’ll also find my slides (hosted by SlideShare) at the end of this article.