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The key theme for Gartner’s annual Symposium IT Expo was the “Nexus of Forces”.

“A Nexus of converging forces — social, mobile, cloud and information — is building upon and transforming user behavior while creating new business opportunities. Research over the past several years has identified the independent evolution of four powerful forces: social, mobile, cloud and information. As a result of consumerization and the ubiquity of connected smart devices, people’s behavior has caused a convergence of these forces.” – Source: Gartner

Gartner Nexus of Forces 520x363 Delivering cloud based apps onto mobile devices: Challenges and strategies

Whilst most people recognize these forces at work in their personal and business lives, it is the implications that are either liberating or terrifying. For those business leaders looking to leapfrog their competition or a nimble start-up looking to wrong foot an incumbent it is an exciting time.

What is ‘mobile’, anyway?

Each force in its own right is powerful, but in combination they can sweep away entire industries. Therefore, if you are a cloud company and are selling B2C, and increasingly B2B, you cannot ignore the mobile. But what is the ‘mobile’ we’ve been talking about?

Is it the mobile phone – the handheld device? If it is then it immediately we have discounted all tablets. Perhaps it is about connectivity. But then again, my iPhone had a signal barely half the time on the train from my home in the UK to London, so it can’t be that.  Maybe it is about portability – i.e., the ability to carry the device.  In which case, my 11” Macbook Air must qualify as mobile, plus it can connect through WiFi or 3G hotspot. Wikipedia is no help. It reiterates the concepts above and adds two further definitions I hadn’t thought of; the child’s hanging toy, and the city in Alabama.

Another way of thinking about it is mobile is a “way of operating” ie mobility. Freeing people from a fixed physical location or central place of work – unless you are a Yahoo employee. Mobile is allowing staff to work, play, laugh and love on their terms wherever and whenever they want.  Described like that, it is empowering and inspiring.

So for a cloud provider, extending your application onto mobile devices should be easy. All you should need is a device with a browser and a connection, and a little design tweaking to make the application “responsive” – i.e. the layout of the Web pages responds to the size of window that it is being displayed in.

I am a founder-investor in a company called LessEventAdmin.com which is doing for event managers what Salesforce did for sales managers. Its Web application is beautifully responsive. Shrink the window on a laptop or view the app on a smartphone and the application adjusts itself.

But sadly that is not enough.

If you live in a US metropolitan area you won’t understand the issue. But much of the world is not covered by a reliable WiFi or phone signal.   I am writing this from a 5-star hotel in Costa Baja in Mexico. The WiFi is spotty at best – certainly not good enough to conduct a couple of Web-conferences. And the US cellphone roaming charges are buttock-clenchingly expensive. So I have had to postpone the meetings until I get back to San Francisco.

Going native

Going native is the answer. I am a non-exec Director of a cool exhibitor lead capture application which runs on an iPad. The USP is that it is an elegant native app and syncs with a cloud based server as and when it needs to and it finds a signal. The reasons the native app is so compelling is because most exhibition halls have poor or non-existent WiFi.  Recently at Dreamforce in the Moscone Center, the WiFi and even connectivity through a phone was unusable.  That’s not surprising really, when you consider it was full of thousands of tech-savvy delegates and exhibitors hitting cloud apps.  So you need to think about offline access, and that leads to the issues of native apps.

Building native apps means that decisions need to be made about operating systems, browsers and devices screen sizes.  Before, the world was simple. There was iOS and an iPhone running Safari.  Add into the mix the iPad, and now Android is a viable alternative, which opens up a number of different device manufacturers and screen sizes. Microsoft is starting to become a realistic option which opens up even more angles.

Also, when Apple and iOS was dominant, a phased approach was acceptable; provide it for the iPhone and see where the additional demand comes from. Now, at a minimum the iPhone, iPad and a couple of Android devices need to be supported out of the gate.

Sadly the promise of “build once deploy anywhere” mobile building platforms has not really delivered. Perhaps HTML5 will be a longer term savior. But in the short term the only approach seems to be a huge level of investment to provide the apps to support the mobile worker.

For the cloud app provider, this should be seen as a huge opportunity, not a cash drain in mobile app building.

If you already have a cloud based app you are already ahead of the competition who are still pushing on-premises applications. They are tied up looking at how they migrate to the cloud. This is challenging enough for an established software vendor as my recent article explained. So whilst they are tied up with migrating to the cloud you can extend your lead into mobile. So take a long hard look at your customer use cases and start to understand where a native mobile app will make the most difference. And then build that.

Do not be tempted to simply replicate your cloud application. Think creatively with your clients about how a mobile version of your applications could transform staff mobility and spawn new, more productive working patterns.

This is your chance to reinvent your industry – and become the new leader.

Header image credit: FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images