Mobile dev divide could be red flag for IT

Developers and execs can't agree on the direction for enterprise mobile dev, with huge implications for IT departments

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Conventional wisdom tells us there's a perennial disconnect between IT and decision makers. However, the disconnect runs even deeper and wider when it comes to mobile technologies, according to a new survey conducted by mobile development firm Appcelerator and IDC. The reasons behind the disconnect appear rooted in IT's sense of its own mission.

Is mobile really IT's mission?

A survey of more than 8,000 mobile developers and 121 IT decision makers conducted earlier this year has unearthed what Appcelerator interprets as signs of a deep disconnect between IT and management when it comes to mobile development in the enterprise.

The survey covered six key areas: ownership of mobile, use of mobile tools, maturity of the use of mobile, implementation of HTML5, velocity and breadth of mobile releases, and the search for skilled mobile developers.

On most issues, IT decision makers and developers broke in opposite directions. To wit, almost half of developers believe IT decision makers are the main drivers of the mobile agenda in an organization, but more than 66 percent of decision makers feel developers are most responsible. When it comes to HTML5, more than 70 percent of IT decision makers report "a positive experience" with the standard; for developers, that number is a mere 37.2 percent.

Why such a deep schism? It could simply be a manifestation of the classic distinction between business leaders and workers in the trenches. But the people who devised the survey believe it might stem from differences in how developers and business leaders see their missions.

Brad Hipps, VP of marketing at Appcelerator, noted that when the survey was first devised it was originally aimed only at developers, not decision makers. He was startled by the disparity of opinion when decision makers were polled as well.

"As mobile has come to the fore over the past three or four years," said Hipps, "it's been somewhat paralleled by the rise of shadow IT -- essentially, the business saying 'we're not going to rely on IT.' And one main reason for that may be that IT was never optimized for these kinds of [mobile] experiences."

Ignorance shouldn't be bliss

Hipps described what he sees as IT's classical role: "Historically, IT is built and optimized to create and manage very large, complex systems of record, which requires great care and feeding, and most of which were optimized for stability, security, and availability." Those very qualities make tougher for IT to deliver mobile solutions, which require rapid iteration and attractive interfaces.

Appcelerator and IDG offer two possible interpretations of the effect this split has had on IT. One is that it can serve as a call to action. "[IT is in danger of] drifting into irrelevance if it can't show the lines of business that it knows what it is they're doing," said Hipps.

Hipps characterizes the other effect as the "ignorance is bliss" model, where IT feels relieved not to be tasked with the job of working on mobile, and is therefore left to concentrate on doing what it perceives it does best -- and can tell themselves they're doing fine. But developers in the trenches see a different (and gloomier) picture, and as a result "[IT is] not only isolated from what the lines of business think, but from what their own developers think.

"No one under the sun is designing themselves for obsolescence," said Hipps. But with the fundamental shifts in technology over the last several years, and the rise of mobile, "the contract with IT has changed. People still want stable and secure and available, but that's not the high bar now; the high bar now is experience. User expectations went through a sea change with the rise of mobile. This isn't fundamentally a Web world anymore."

In the end, IT leaders have "an overly optimistic sense of where they are," says John Jackson, research vice president for Mobile & Connected Platforms at IDC. Jackson says this split serves as a "cautionary tale," where IT is tasked with shedding its delusions about its roles and behaviors. "This is, at least, a call to self-reflection or introspection [on IT's part]."