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Mobile devices bring back that old client-server feeling

It's deja vu all over again

If you see the phrase “any time, any place, anywhere” in relation to mobile access, and are tempted to point out the language redundancy (any place, anywhere), then you are probably not old enough to remember the birth of client-server in the late '80s and early '90s.

If, however, cheesy music from a Martini ad is now running through your head, you probably were there and can recall exactly how client-server panned out.

You will remember how liberating it all seemed. Business groups and departments no longer had to wait in line to get their requirements dealt with by the high priests of the mainframe or the custodians of the VAX, the HP3000 or whatever other mini-computer central IT had adopted.

One giant leap

Chuck an Oracle database onto a Unix server, do a bit of that new-fangled 4GL development, fire up a few workstation clients and you were sorted. And that GUI running on your desktop – so much nicer to use than the old green screen terminals – was a massive leap forward in usability.

Over the years, of course, the realisation dawned that client-server brought with it as many problems as it solved. As client machines multiplied, developers ended up having to develop and test for a whole range of workstation specs and environments, and whenever something changed operations staff had to worry about getting new versions of software out to every desktop.

Users discovered they could create their own little offline empire

As support became more complicated and users discovered that an intelligent client with local storage meant they could create their own little offline empire, the overhead, costs and risks began to escalate.

Following a period of re-centralisation using Web-based architectures, it looks as if we are beginning to come full circle. When some of us old-timers see how the next generation is getting all excited about using mobile apps as front-ends for accessing services across the network, we can’t help noticing parallels with the past.

Just as they did two decades ago, people are talking about ease of use, flexibility, and how great it is to be able to store your stuff locally or copy central data from the network so it is available offline when you need it.

With these new intelligent devices (this time lightweight notebooks, tablets and smartphones), so much can be done to liberate users from the clutches of those killjoys in the IT department (sound familiar?)

But things are arguably a bit more challenging this time around, at least from an IT perspective.

Target practice

With regard to endpoint proliferation, it is not just a matter of deciding whether to support the iPad or iPhone, popular Android devices, less popular Android devices, old Windows 7 phones, new Windows 8 phones, Windows 8 RT, BlackBerrys, Symbian phones, and so on (phew).

Driven by consumer-calibrated release cycles, devices are superseded within three to six months, which means each platform is a moving target in its own right.

On top of that, we have Byod (bring your own device) and cloud storage services such as Dropbox to consider. All of this creates a set of challenges that makes client-server look easy-peasy.

But surely we have as our friend that ubiquitous access mechanism known as the browser? With a few tweaks of the server-based application to deal with different screen sizes and browser standards, and knowing that all data stays on the server, can’t we be pretty relaxed about all that client-side diversity?

If only that were the case.

In the real world, the fast and reliable connectivity upon which this model depends just isn’t there in most countries at the moment – hence you quickly get back to local applications and offline data storage, with a heavy reliance on replication and synchronisation for more critical applications.

But at least HTML5 and cross-platform development and execution environments are now with us to save us from all of the historical overhead associated with client-side software. Or are they?

Time for action

The debate continues to rage about whether HTML5 cuts it and whether cross-platform environments pose too much risk of lock-in, not to mention user interface compromises so those native apps keep accumulating.

The emergence of mobile device management and mobile application management solutions that allow us to monitor and control everything out there can help but the truth is that it is all pretty fluid at the moment.

In the meantime, the genie is out of the bottle with regard to user expectations of Martini-style access and Byod. IT departments don’t have too long to figure out how to enable as much user freedom as possible while keeping costs and risks under control.

Arguably the most urgent task is to deal with that most basic of requirements in the mobile context: email. Here, at least, the combination of messaging standards, Webmail interfaces and back-ends that support larger inboxes (to minimise the need for client-side storage) provide an increasing number of workable options.

What is your experience? Where do you see the biggest challenges and questions? And do you have any tips that might help others navigate the mobile-client minefield?

Let us have your thoughts in the comment area below. ®

  • Dale Vile is research director and CEO of Freeform Dynamics

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