Enterprises are still in the early days of mobile application development. The growing evidence suggests enterprises should focus time and resources on cross-mobile-device applications.

Choosing amongst the many mobile platforms:
There’s no doubt that building native mobile applications, targeted at and leveraging the native device capabilities can produce very compelling user experiences. However, the question invariably boils down to which mobile platform should your enterprise build mobile application for?

The iPhone OS is definitely a leading contender. There’s an argument to be made for growing adoption of iPhone OS devices as Morgan Stanley suggests that the iPAD is cannibalizing the netbook market.

Android which now accounts for nearly half of U.S. mobile web traffic. However, it’s interesting to note that Motorola, a key Android partner and device manufacturer is rumored to have acquired a mobile OS company, Azingo. What’s more, Motorola Co-CEO, Sanjay Jha is quoted:

“I’ve always felt that owning your OS is important, provided you have an ecosystem, you have all the services and you have an ability and the scale to execute on keeping that OS at the leading edge. And I continue to believe that at some point, if we have all of those attributes, that owning our own OS will be a very important thing.”

HP, fresh off its Plam acquisition, plans to further invest in PalmOS and develop new tablets using the platform.

RIM is now planning to release its own tablet based on the BlackBerry OS, most likely version 6, to target the consumer market. This makes sense for RIM as they have many of the ecosystem and scale capabilities that Motorola’s Sanjay Jha deems a requirement for owing an OS.

We shouldn’t forget that Nokia is betting on Symbian and Microsoft continues to bet on the Windows OS mobile for mobile phones and potential future tablet devices.

Infinite requirements with finite IT budgets:
Given infinite time and resources, enterprises could target a few or all of these platforms with native applications. And therein lies the huge challenge IT departments and their line of business peers face. Today, the vast majority of enterprises building traditional web applications build and test for one to three PC-based browsers. These enterprises simply don’t have the resources to build native device applications for even two of the leading mobile platforms in addition to the traditional PC-based application. This is the overarching message I’ve heard when talking to customers about their mobile application plans and challenges.

Following early adopters isn’t always helpful:
It’s important not to base mobile application development decisions of early adopter companies. Many of the best known enterprise mobile applications, especially for the iPhone, have been built using the device’s SDK. This is to be expected as early adopters experiment with user experiences and getting out ahead of the competition. But over time, these businesses are bounded by the same IT economics as other companies. As your user base shifts from PC-based browsers to PC-based browsers and varying mobile devices, the need to targets these range of devices requires a build once, test often approach or a larger IT budget. The latter is unlikely to occur, especially over the long run. As such, the best approach is to build cross device applications. As countless others have stated, the mobile experience will be dominated by HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript. Even Adobe has pledged to deliver first class HTML5 tools.

Of course the challenge of building open web standards compliant applications using HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript alone is that these applications don’t get to take advantage of native device capabilities, like GPS or the accelerometer. This is where open source frameworks from PhoneGap, Rhomobile, Appcelerator and the like come in. These frameworks allow companies to build cross device applications while also taking advantage of some of the more common native device capabilities, again, like accelerometer or GPS. There are obviously considerations about application lock-in to the framework itself versus building against open web standards.  If this is a concern for your business, ensure that the open source license and the community around the open source framework meets your requirements for flexibility and future freedom of action.

Are you building native mobile applications today, and more importantly do you expect to in two or five years?

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PS: I should state: “The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.”