Over the past six months I’ve been working with various Readify customers helping them understand how they can take advantage of Windows 8 within their organisations. In particular I’ve been working with commercial and/or government entities who are looking at deploying the new operating system and want to better understand what benefits the new application model might provide.
From Windows 7 to Windows 8
For those of you just getting familiar with Windows 8, it is important to understand that Windows 8 builds upon the foundation of Windows 7 in that if the application worked with Windows 7, it’ll work with Windows 8. Windows 8 represents a superset of functionality of Windows 7 (as you would expect). One of the significant things that Microsoft added to Windows 8 was an additional model for building applications – these are called “Windows Store Apps” but the title is somewhat misleading because you can actually build these kinds of applications and deploy them within an organisation without publishing them on the public Windows Store. For the remainder of this post I’m going to refer to this new kind of application as a “Modern App” and the old-style of application as a “Legacy App”.
Impact of Mobility and Form Factor
There is no doubt that mobile computing has had a major impact on our society and I think I could argue that the trend hasn’t even hit the corner of the hockey-stick yet. We are seeing increased adoption of touch-based tablet devices and in the consumer space these devices are displacing traditional family computers. The problem is that the legacy approach to building desktop applications just doesn’t scale down well to these kinds of touch screen devices – and so a new approach was needed.
Microsoft has developed the new modern application framework as part of a larger overall rethink on how users want to interact with their PC today and into the future. Microsoft now sees Windows running on high-end engineering PCs used for CAD and software development all the way down to handheld devices used for casual access. Prior to Windows 8 these lower end devices represented a problem for Microsoft because their OS couldn’t be scaled to run efficiently on this kind of hardware. Windows 8 changed all that – the operating system is now significantly more friend on battery consumption and with the modern UI of new Windows 8 applications it works much better on a smaller form factor (whilst maintaining its mouse/keyboard friendly capabilities).
Taking Advantage of the Platform
While it is possible for enterprises to roll out Windows 8 and not redevelop any of their internal business systems I recommend that organisations take a look at their existing business systems and think about the kinds of systems that could benefit from the new platform capabilities. Any sizable business is likely to have dozens of applications that sit within this category.
No doubt organisations will already have Windows 8 application projects underway with more in the pipeline. One of my concerns is that customers are going to start building large monolithic Windows 8 applications which span multiple departments and have relatively large footprints. One of the benefits of the new Modern App model is that you break applications down into smaller pieces and link them together with techniques like protocol activation and sharing contracts.
The Three Archetypes
What is really needed is a shorthand for talking about the kind of application that is being built to put a fence around the functionality that should be contained within it. After a good period of time working with customers, and thinking about the problem I think I’ve come up with three different application types. They are:
- The Activity Hub
- The Gateway Application
- The Role/Departmental Application
What I’ll do here is expand on each of them a little bit.
The Activity Hub
The Activity Hub is a “one-of” kind of application within any organisation (where an organisation might be an entire business or a significant business unit). It is the one application that every employee/contractor uses several times a day to keep abreast of what is happening across the organisation. In an increasingly mobile and distributed world it is the equivalent of the notice board in the coffee room.
Many organisations that are getting started with Windows 8 have this idea to replace the Windows Store with their own company specific store. Whilst this is a laudable goal I think that it is a case of re-inventing the wheels. I would rather see organisations use technologies such as Windows InTune or System Centre Configuration Manager to deploy applications to user devices and instead re-purpose this hub as a central point for discovery of business intelligence, notifications and other generally available information.
The Gateway Application
The gateway application is a thin layer over an existing line of business application. Rather than expose any really task-like functionality this kind of application is focused on getting data in and out of the existing system via the various shell extension points in Modern Apps (such as sharing contracts, file pickers, search etc).
Gateway applications are important because they represent a relatively cheap way to get data into the hands of people that need it without fully replacing the existing application.
The Role/Departmental Application
The role-focused or departmental application is a fully featured application focused on helping a particular kind of user within the business key their job done quickly. It might include forms for capturing data, or take advantage of capabilities such as NFC (Near Field Communication) for bringing up records for physical items.
Role/Departmental applications represent a bigger investment that gateway applications and would probably be developed initially for those people who need to be mobile (whether that is inside the building, or out of the road). These applications become a rethink of how users work with backend systems on modern devices which might work as a desktop one minute, and as a tablet the next.
Basis for Estimation and Higher Success Rates
One of the interesting side effects of breaking high level application requirements into these three categories is it gives you a practical way to weigh up the likely implementation costs. Most activity hub development projects are going to be very similar in size, as are gateway applications. Departmental applications might be the area of most significant deviation but I believe that organisations should limit the size of these applications to increase the speed with which they can be pushed out but also realise some of the benefits of building smaller applications focused on very specific areas and then linking them together.
For example, you might have a common concept of a customer across two departments, and instead of building screens for customers in two different applications you build a single “customer micro-app” which both departmental applications can launch into when necessary.
I think this is going to be the year of Windows 8 adoption within the enterprise. As part of that I expect many businesses to start embracing a more mobile style of working where all staff take their devices with them wherever they go. To make this work they are going to need new kinds of applications that work well in this style of working. I think that breaking applications down into these three application archetypes will help.
If you are about to kick-off a deployment of Windows 8 in your organisation and you want someone to help come up with an overall approach get in touch. I’ve got some work that I’ve already done in this space which might help.