Thursday, September 2, 2010

The iPad Revolution

iPad Web Medical Business Application Screenshot

The release of Apple’s iPad tablet has changed the game for mobile business solutions. I have read that the iPad is targeting the consumer world as an eBook reader, movie and music player, game console among other things. I am sure it is that target domain that is clearing the stocks in all the Apple stores these days. However I am interested in how it can penetrate the traditional business and health care market and that is what I want to talk about. 

The Early Years
Over the past 10 years or so or even before that with the Newton, there has been a lot of talk about providing mobile applications to the business user, but there has been little significant progress in this domain space. I believe there are several reasons for this:
1) Many of the true mobile devices that successfully made it into the business world were simply limited by size. The palm, smart phones like the blackberry, iPhone etc. were just too small to have anything really practical to work with, other than typical productivity apps synonymous with these types of devices, such as ones which managed email, calendars and contacts. It was and still is difficult to read the content on these devices due to their small size. Additionally, the virtual keyboard interface is too small and difficult to use.
2) The larger tablets required a pointer of some kind as a substitute for the mouse, while the operating systems for all intents and purposes were the same as the ones used on the desktop or laptop and lacked many of the mobile features of the smaller devices. When we tried out our applications on some of the windows tablets, they just seemed difficult to use. This was due to the fact that our standard web user interface was developed for devices that come with a real mouse and keyboard, which was difficult to navigate when the hardware was substituted with a pointer and virtual keyboard, no matter how hard the slate vendors tried to convince us otherwise. The effort necessary to change an application user interface to be more slate friendly was too great and it provided vendors like us little ROI because it was still going to be a difficult proposition to get mobile medical professionals like physicians and nurses to use the tablet for the reasons mentioned. 
3) If a vendor decided to provide some mobile modules, they had to be developed using native APIs for the device operating system. Web solutions were just too impractical to develop as many of the small devices, even if they had browser capabilities, were slow and did not support JavaScript, which is essential for developing good web applications. The tablet again, was just just a glorified laptop without the keyboard, so it was pointless developing special code for it because a laptop just seemed like a better way to go and that is exactly what business professionals decided to do in general.
4) If the application was built for the native OS, it had to still connect to a central database, thus requiring a WI-FI connection directly to the database port and WI-FI was not always that reliable then. Another option was to develop the application to use a local mobile offline database solution and to synchronize it with the central database whenever possible. However, this was a very difficult and impractical solution to implement because of all the complications related to offline application development and the subsequent complications of synchronizing data. No business professional wants to deal with data conflicts. They will just walk away from it. Actually they never even walked to it.
5) To build a native application would require vendors to develop new mobile development frameworks which seemed like too much work given the light demand compared with the constant new requirements for standard desktop based web solutions. Furthermore, each device would have to be installed separately with the native application resulting in a version control nightmare. B Sharp like many other vendors were better off continuing to enhance their desktop and laptop based web solutions.

The year 2010

Fast forward to 2010 and the release of apple’s iPad. When I first heard about the release and all the hoopla surrounding it, I said “another tablet? so what?”. Critics said things like it was just a larger version of the iPod touch and it wasn't worth much. Nevertheless, I decided to have a look at the iPad and after some analysis, I concluded that the iPad will revolutionize the business and medical community for four main reasons:
1) It uses the iPhone OS and not the MAC OS
The critics definitely got it wrong. It is the fact that the iPad is indeed a larger iPod (or iPhone) that makes it compelling for three reasons. Firstly, for the first time of any consequence, we have an operating system built for mobile devices running the tablet, unlike the Linux and Windows desktop or laptop operating systems which were modified slightly for the tablets thus making the tablets really glorified laptops. Secondly, professionals don’t have time to learn new user interfaces. If they are comfortable with a known mobile device interface such as the ones that are provided in their iPhone or iPod touch, why change it? Thirdly, the iPad is controlled by hand and finger gestures. For the average non IT savvy person, controlling a computer by hand gestures is just more intuitive than using a mouse. For example, to zoom in on an article all you have to do is to flick your fingers outwards and it zooms in. Likewise to zoom out you flick your fingers inwards. Same thought applies for scrolling. You simply move your fingers in the scroll direction. The problem then for vendors like us is that applications developed for the MAC and PC which use the mouse pointer are not necessarily ideal when using gesture controlled devices. Therefore, applications for these devices must be modified specifically for the gesture controlled UI. More on this in the next point.
2) Technology is now available to build Web applications to look like Native Apps 
For reasons explained above, it is counter productive to build native OS applications, therefore the only practical solution it to build the user interface as a web application. If we ask a professional like a doctor to use a web interface, we must make it consistent with the native UI to which he is accustomed. More importantly, this type of user should not have to differentiate between the two or even be aware of it. The timing of the release of the iPad could not have been better, given the imminent release of HTML5 and CSS3, which goes a long way towards helping a developer make a web app look like a native app without having to invest a lot of money and time on it. The iPad only support the Safari browser which is a concern. However, it has excellent support for CSS3 and has a pretty fast JavaScript interpreter (when I last checked, it was second only to Chrome), which is obviously good news. 
3) Wireless access and infrastructure has become more robust and usable. 
The other factor with respect to timing is that wireless WI-FI connectivity is now pretty ubiquitous in any business environment and quite robust. If it is not available, 3G cell networks are everywhere. Apple was smart enough to provide a 3G modem option for the iPad. This allows for "anywhere" wireless cell data access to the internet and best of all, it is not tied to a cell vendor, woohoo! In the past, 3G protocol was not available, so web browsing over a cell network was pretty unusable really. If you do connect via 3G, you will need to also have a VPN client on the iPad, in order to access the web server from the outside network. The iPad does provide a native client, but it only supports a few VPN servers, but that should improve in time hopefully. Although, on the other hand VPN server solutions today are pretty infantile and the technology has progressed little over the past several years. There should be a single protocol standard after all these years, no?  I digressed, sorry!
4) the iPad is cool

I hate the word cool, but it applies here. At the risk of typecasting and offending (there is a "tongue in cheek" element so please don't be, and you are welcome to hit back in the comments section), high end professionals like doctors, lawyers, financial guys love their “brand”. Can you imagine one these guys driving around in a fully loaded KIA Sorrento, which has many of same the nice features as a BMW or Mercedes SUV? Not on your life. In fact the new KIA even looks nicer. How many of these guys and gals would listen to their music on some creative labs or Zune MP3 player which may even be technically superior to an iPod? Nary a soul.  It doesn’t matter, Apple has got the “it” factor and that is an intrinsic intangible that gives Apple a huge advantage over everyone else that wants to “get a mitt and get in the game”. I just read several articles where many of these wannabes from HP to Neofonie (who?) are claiming to be soon releasing iPad killer products. Yeah right! Whenever anyone says he/she has a Google killer or Microsoft killer or Apple killer product, he/she is only paying the Killee a huge compliment by acknowledging that it is the market leader and the one to beat. We all know they have only two hopes of it ever happening and you all know what they are, particularly if you paid attention to my screenshot above, right? “Bob Hope and No Hope”. Imagine a doctor who gets to walk around the hospital complex entering his orders and prescriptions on one of these devices with just his finger gestures. At the same time he gets to show off that lit up bitten off apple on the backside of his tablet to his envious colleagues. As far as he is concerned, he is cool and he is probably one of those guys who refused to use the old tablet. Now all we have to do as vendors is to produce a nice and easy familiar user interface for him or her to work with. 

The iPad is not going to get killed off any time soon, but that is not say that since Apple has started a phenomenon, that it won’t be getting any competition. On the contrary,  the competition will be fierce. The folks at Microsoft are trying hard to team up with some of their key hardware partners such as Lenovo and Dell to develop the perfect "iPad killer", just like they tried with the ill fated “iPod killer” Zune MP3. The problem is that they are using the same failed strategy they had with the previous generation of slates and that was to modify their existing bloated OS for the device. In this case they are doing it with Windows 7 by adding the Windows touch interface, which is an overlay to allow finger gestures. But the windows interface is really written for the mouse so using it with touch gestures is not very a friendly user experience. Unless they come up with a new OS for tablet soon, they really have little chance against vendors who have developed their operating systems from the ground up specifically for mobile devices. Google Android based devices will be serious contenders as they mature and so will other new kids on the block, such Palm with its webOS (although Palm may be a little offended by the "new kid" moniker). Either way, I believe these devices are here to stay and we as software vendors have to jump on the bandwagon.