Vendors are busy building logistics apps for mobile environments, but who’s truly ahead?
If there’s one trend among the handful of buzzwords that emerge each year in the IT industry that’s straightforward to understand, it’s mobility.
That’s partly because we all hold in our hands the key to this new trend — the smartphone.
But it’s more than just buzz. Seeing the potential to empower grunts all the way to executives in global supply chains, logistics technology vendors of all stripes have made
development of mobile applications a clear priority.
Simply put, nearly every software vendor is on track to develop and deploy mobile applications that mirror or expand those already available via a desktop or laptop computer. Depending on the particular vendor, they are either gradually easing their way down the mobility highway, or are racing there as quickly as possible.
As shippers navigate the vendor landscape, and as midsized third party logistics providers look for technology vendors to provide backbone systems for their operations, there is a major differentiator. Can the vendor deploy its applications in the cloud, or does it require an on-premise deployment? Or can it do either?
The answer to this question is a prism through which more granular decisions on vendors can be based. Does the vendor have strengths in regions that suit a shipper’s needs, or in the transportation modes that are critical to a shipper or 3PL? The list can go on and on.
But mobility is likely to become one of those factors on the list — maybe not the most important one, but certainly a factor.
So the question is, are vendors that architect their solutions purely in the cloud better placed to develop corresponding and complementary mobile solutions? Or, is it the predominantly on-premise vendors, the largest of which have deeper pockets and more R&D bandwidth to dream up and execute ways to bring new functionality to the mobile environment?
Of course, there are now plenty of providers in the logistics space who can do both.
As the term software-as-a-service (SaaS) gained popularity, it became a kind of natural counterpoint to the requirement that customers buy a license to procure technology. It’s the difference between pay-as-you-use and pay-everything-upfront. But that nomenclature doesn’t really apply to the scenario today.
As Fab Brasca, JDA vice president of global logistics, told American Shipper, the delineation is cloud versus on-premise, not SaaS versus licensed. JDA offers both cloud and on-premise deployment models to its customers.
“(Licensed) is really an economic or pricing description rather than a deployment model,” he said. “Many of our customers choose to buy the license so that they can own the software asset as opposed to paying a never-ending monthly subscription, and still deploy on the cloud.”
Accordingly, cloud and SaaS are not interchangeable in the way they are commonly characterized. Cloud is the infrastructure behind the pricing model.
So, how does this relate to development of mobile solutions?
One analyst predicted on-premise vendors will subtly shift their pricing model to account for the impact of increased demand for mobile applications. Rising mobile device demand will inevitably translate into application demand, the thinking goes.
“The mobile device is king, and in acknowledgement, enterprise software companies will continue to change their licensing models,” Jon Winsett of NPI, a spend management consultancy focused on eliminating overspending on IT, telecom and shipping, wrote on the SpendMatters blog in early September. “Sales for tablets and mobile phones are expected to grow 38.9 percent and 9.3 percent, respectively — and software vendors are devising ways to profit from this growth. This year, we’ve seen Microsoft, Oracle, SAP and other large enterprise software vendors move to device-based licensing programs or enforce ‘third party access’ restrictions. It’s safe to say that vendors will continue to monetize device proliferation at the expense of clients’ IT budgets.”
Winsett was writing more broadly than about just logistics activities, but the buzz around mobile apps has truly transformed into tangible offerings. Hardly a week goes by without a transportation provider, 3PL, or technology vendor announcing a mobile version or extension of their services or products.
But if a shipper is torn about whether to turn to a cloud or on-premise solution, and that shipper considers mobility a key consideration, what should they factor in?
There’s a school of thought that goes like this: developers of cloud-based solutions are innately more inclined to develop usable mobile apps because of their more streamlined development process. What’s more, the speed with which cloud-oriented vendors are perceived to be able to deploy their solutions seems to jive with the fast-paced speed of mobile app development and deployment.
This is all subjective, of course. The major on-premise developers would argue their ability to develop mobile logistics applications exceeds that of their smaller rivals. As one cloud-based vendor put it to American Shipper, SAP likely has more engineers working on mobile applications alone then that vendor has employees.
“I don’t believe that there is any advantage or disadvantage for any player, licensed or SaaS, to offer mobile solutions,” said Joe Macri, senior managing consultant at IBM Logistics Technology Consulting. “The truth is that both licensed applications and their SaaS counterparts are architected the same way — they’re all based on N-tier technology that has been in favor for just over a decade. The only difference between the two is a business model where one turns over the software to the customer and expects them to host the application and the other retains the code and does the hosting and maintenance for the customer.”
Macri, who specializes in value chain execution of Oracle’s trade management and global trade management modules, said the development of N-tier changed the way hosted applications were viewed by shippers.
“The developers saw that the Internet was a game changer and that the client-server systems popular at the time were limited to the host’s network, which was inside of their firewall,” he said. “N-tier changed that because the interface was in a browser, meaning there was no software to load on a user’s computer, and the capability to connect to the server was there from day one.”
Brasca agreed about the deployment model not affecting mobile app development.
“I do not see any difference between deployment models that would impact the development of mobile applications,” he said. “Agility (in developing new solutions) has nothing to do with the software technology-wise.”
Brasca said JDA’s own mobility efforts are primarily aimed at giving users access to decision-making information.
“What we’re doing is extending the app to get better status feeds and interaction without having to sit behind a desktop — just get more actionable access to the processes,” he said.
Addressing the question about whether cloud-oriented solution providers had some sort of advantage in developing mobile applications, Brasca said the perceived gap in agility between providers like JDA and Oracle (JDA’s primary competitor) and smaller developers is incorrectly characterized.
“Sometimes, the perceived agility is there because they have more to develop,” he said. “There’s a perception they’re doing things faster, but really they have more to do, they’re catching up. My TMS is very robust, just like Oracle’s. When you extend it, for any reason, sometimes the effort can be non-trivial. Extending one area can touch all areas of the solution, whereas with a smaller solution, it might be simpler, because it’s less robust. So we have to ask, if I’m extending the mobile app, what else am I going to consider?”
But Brasca said the carving out of a mobile application from the foundational one is simpler than the other way around.
“The types of things you’re doing and extending, it’s small,” he said. “Doing simpler status updates. It’s extending a dashboard to executives — that’s a subset of capability. It’s easy for us to expose the capability of the solution, because we have such a rich structure to build from.”
Evan Puzey, chief marketing officer at the logistics and trade software developer Kewill, also saw little differentiation. Like JDA, Kewill offers solutions deployed in both the cloud and on-premise.
In September, Kewill released a set of mobile applications aimed at providing 3PLs with a way to empower their third party carriers to access Kewill’s network remotely, and provide status updates accordingly.
“No difference as far as I can tell,” Puzey said, when asked if cloud vendors or on-premise vendors had a development advantage.
He said because Kewill’s applications were originally on-premise, and then shifted to the cloud, the mobile applications were built with the latter environment in mind.
Puzey noted the end-use of mobile applications is largely what drives development, not necessarily the deployment model.
“The interaction on a mobile is pretty different because of the screen size,” he said. “You have to adapt it and shrink it for the smaller size of data. We think more about it from the supply chain execution rather than the supply chain planning perspective.
“(The new application) has been built for smartphone use, rather than just pushing a desktop app into a mobile environment. Think about viewing a full Website versus a mobile version, and how much richer the mobile version is,” he explained.
But Puzey said mobile apps, especially those in the hands of third party individuals, like non-fleet truck drivers, are susceptible to update lapses.
“The key thing is making sure the user is updating the app on his phone,” he said. “We don’t want to have a bunch of drivers who haven’t updated calling the help desk saying something doesn’t work.”
On the other side of the mobile application coin is how they apply to supply chain executives on the move. Greg Kefer, vice president of corporate marketing for GT Nexus, said when it comes to mobile logistics applications, the integrity of the underlying data is more important than the construct of the app itself.
“A mobile device is a viewer, but if the data isn’t strong, I don’t care about how great your bells or whistles are,” he said. “It’s like if you have a Ferrari, but they haven’t invented gas.”
Kefer said he sees small mobile devices such as iPhones or Android-power phones as “viewers, not doers.”
“Supply chain practitioners are very mobile people,” he said. “If you’re an exec, carrying your iPhone or Galaxy, you’re probably looking for alerts. It could be a text saying that the ‘back to school’ assortment that’s supposed to be arriving in Long Beach didn’t arrive.
“But the orchestrators, the people a few notches below the VP-level, they want big tables with clickable links if you’re going to use a mobile device to configure a supply chain sequence of events,” Kefer said. “They want more information in their tables, not less. They want color codes. Graphical reports about how things are behaving. Mobile’s very sexy, but the people in the center of these supply chains who are making it happen want bigger screens, they want double screens. These are the key pillars in technology that you have to address.”
Kefer emphasized those driving to create mobile applications can’t ignore the fact that data is key, and logistics managers need more data than most phones can display.
“A lot of people are going to revert back to their PCs,” he said. “You’re not going to see people say, ‘I’m going to Asia next week, I’ll leave my laptop at home and just take my phone.’”
Kefer said he felt strongly that cloud-oriented solutions providers were better placed to build mobile solutions because of that data. GT Nexus has long trumpeted its single instance information model as the best way to disseminate information among a dispersed network of partners, such as in a supply chain.
“We’re developing mobile apps too because our clients want it,” he said. “The difference is, we have the data to support that. You’re looking at that superior data model. The starkness between cloud and on-premise is huge in supply chain, and it’s all about information.”