Among the issues his group has wrestled with are whether to build a Web portal that adapts itself based on the device that is coming into it, or to go with a device-specific app. Today the firm is using both approaches. Customers with iPhones can submit photos of an auto accident or the damage from one, using the "First notice of loss" mobile application in the iTunes store. That information lands in Erie's back-end servers.
But the company also has a web portal "where I can do the exact same thing," Miller says. The goal is to have "inputs coming in from just about any mobile device."
Bernard Golden, CEO of consultancy HyperStratus, says these companies represent just the beginning of the mobile-cloud trend. With the increasing number and diversity of mobile computing devices, which have much less on-board storage than traditional end-user computing environments, there is a shift toward moving much of the functionality of an app into a centralized environment, like a cloud. This allows storage, computation, data access, security and management to all be handled in a centralized fashion.
The market for cloud-based mobile applications is expected to grow almost 90 percent from 2009 to 2014, according to Juniper Research. For its part, ABI Research reports that more than 240 million business customers will access cloud-computing services via mobile devices by 2015 and that number could approach a billion.
In fact, some would go so far to say that given the sheer number and variety of mobile devices in a sizable enterprise, the only sane way to manage it all is via some kind of centralized method. Any other way of ramping up a truly mobile enterprise simply will not scale.
Mobile computing is not mobile cloud computing
Although mobile computing and mobile cloud computing may sound the same, they are in fact very different. In "regular" mobile computing, applications run on a mobile device in native mode, with the application and data all stored on the device.
Running a mobile application in native mode has some advantages -- most important, no latency or network bandwidth problems. But applications that run on mobile devices are often limited in functionality and are generally not business-class applications; it's very rare to find native smartphone apps used as serious front ends for database queries, for instance.
In contrast, mobile cloud computing applications run on servers that reside in the cloud. Application data also lives in the cloud and results are fed back to the mobile device via an over-the-air network such as 3G or 4G. Users access apps and data via the browser on their mobile devices.
Mobile cloud computing allows users to potentially run more robust applications, provided that sufficient security measures are in place. There can be problems, however, such as latency and network bandwidth issues for the transfer of data between the cloud and the mobile device.