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Mobile Applications for IBM i Enable Business Continuity

Mobile development expert Alan Seiden and IBMer Brad Bentley explain how the OS is well-suited for the task.

Illustration of a meeting room coming out of a tablet on a light blue background

Cellphones and mobile devices, long a part of our daily lives, have also become essential in the world of business. That’s certainly the case for Alan Seiden.

As head of Seiden Group, a consulting firm specializing in application development and modernization on the IBM i platform, Seiden manages his business from his phone. When traveling to client sites and user events, he checks and updates his schedule using Trello task tracking software. And with Slack, the popular collaborative messaging platform, Seiden and his employees all keep in constant contact.

“The expense tracker in Slack allows you to create receipts by taking photos from your phone. The features our phones have—starting with the camera—allow you to capture data on the spot,” he says.

“We’re all so busy; our to-do lists are too big already,” Seiden adds. “That’s what makes the mobile experience so important. We can handle business even when we’re not at our desks.”

No longer the exclusive domain of retailers, the mobile experience—or mobility, if you prefer—now extends far beyond everyday consumerism. And increasingly, IBM i clients recognize that you don’t need to have something to sell online to benefit from mobile technologies.

Designing the User Experience

Consider a company executive responsible for approving purchase orders. Not that long ago, this person needed a desktop computer or perhaps an emulator to review and sign off on these documents. If she was traveling, the paperwork had to wait. But now, with a phone and access to the company’s mobile application—which provides automated notifications for each new purchase order—there’s no paper. Approvals can be given with the swipe of a thumb, or even registered through a voice application. Everything can be handled from the shop floor or from the road.

Or imagine a supply company that develops its own mobile application. The app connects to the company’s IBM i system, which tracks the status of all orders. With information about deliveries—as well as pending orders and back orders—at his fingertips, the shop manager knows when he needs to schedule contractors to unload incoming cargo.

“So much of the time, we think of mobility as external, as this interface that only our customers interact with,” says Brad Bentley, senior management consultant with IBM Systems Lab Services. “But now we’re seeing people putting their business intelligence, their analytics, into mobility applications for internal use. There’s real impact on utilizations for these producers.”

Seiden believes that understanding the user base is the first step in developing web apps. Identifying your primary users—be they customers or employees—and how they’ll access your application—be it from mobile devices, desktops or some mix of both—is essential to designing a suitable user experience.

Naturally, a company website will be accessed from all devices: phones, tablets and desktops. “Responsive” is the term that describes optimizing the online experience for all users. “It’s very important that all web apps should, at minimum, be responsive,” says Seiden. Responsive apps change their appearance according to the form factor, so they look good and function well on all common device sizes.

The other common option is to develop a native application. These applications are optimized specifically for mobile devices and downloadable from online app stores. Some native apps are widely used (e.g., Google Maps), but some companies develop and maintain their own native apps. “These apps take advantage of all of the features of the phone,” Seiden says. “That takes specialized knowledge, but a native application can potentially provide an enhanced experience.”
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“We're all so busy; our to-do lists are too big already. That's what makes the mobile experience so important. We can handle business even when we're not at our desks.”
—Alan Seiden, founder, Seiden Group

Something to Build on or Learn From

While the process of developing and running mobile applications is certainly involved, IBM i businesses can take heart in a couple of factors. One is that you’ve kind of been here before. Over the past several years, many enterprises have launched and completed web enablement projects. Web enablement can be viewed as a precursor to going mobile—and, depending on your experience, it can be something to build on or learn from.

“Mobility is an extension of web enablement,” Bentley says. “And the beauty of it is now, if you re-evaluate and re-architect things the right way, you can post both of these solutions through a single instance and have them perform very well from your server infrastructure.”

The other factor is that IBM i is very well-suited for this task. The platform is designed to connect data and business logic by supporting the latest languages, frameworks and patterns. Through the universal language of web services, and specifically, the implementation of RESTful service layers, mobile applications can interact with IBM i securely while providing scalability. Open-source tools like Bootstrap, which is designed to enhance responsiveness in mobile apps, offer even greater flexibility.

This seems like an appropriate point to note that the “i” does indeed stand for “integration.” “As a mobile developer, I don’t really care what’s on the back end or what I’m talking to. I care about how I talk to it,” says Bentley. “With IBM i hosting the data and serving as the master repository for everything, you can do everything you need to do. IBM i is an amazing platform for mobile applications.” 

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