What enterprise mobile apps can learn from mobile games

Enterprise mobile apps are shifting from small, narrowly task-oriented programs to larger, more complex ones

Enterprise mobile apps are shifting from small, narrowly task-oriented programs to larger, more complex ones. To design them well, enterprise developers can learn a lot from a surprising source: mobile games.

That's the provocative thesis of Alex Caccia, president of Marmalade, which sells a cross-platform SDK for high-performance mobile applications, ranging from games to sophisticated enterprise apps. With Marmalade, developers can design and build a native or hybrid app and then distribute it on multiple mobile operating systems.

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Caccia, during a presentation at RIM's recent BlackBerry World conference, described how mobile gaming experience can help enterprise developers. Marmalade supports the current BlackBerry PlayBook OS and has been working closely with RIM to support its next iteration, BlackBerry 10, due out later this year. A few of the games created with the tool set are "Need for Speed: Shift," "Golf Battle 3D," "Backbreaker 2 Football," and "Pro Evolution Soccer 2011."

Enterprise IT groups usually don't see the relevance of game development because they view games through a distorting set of myths, he says. Games are considered time-wasters, the enemy of business productivity, he says. And it's assumed that "when you play, you switch off your brain," Caccia says. This was, he says, almost exactly the same criticism leveled against a new literary form, the novel, nearly 300 years ago.

"Games are inherently creative," Caccia says, and cites a quote from the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung: "One of the most difficult tasks men can perform, however much others may despise it, is the invention of good games and it cannot be done by men out of touch with their instinctive selves." Games are part of what being human is, and an essential part of what humans, at all ages do. "We make games out of anything," Caccia says. "The process of game play is deeply natural."

Except, he implies, when it comes to work, and specifically when it comes to software applications for businesses. One company that intuited this was the online retailer Amazon.com. "Amazon saw very early that the responsiveness of its website was really critical to the pleasure of shopping," Caccia says. The speed of apps -- a passionate, pixel-level obsession for game developers -- goes beyond simply lower latency: It relates to engagement and pleasure.

Caccia references an observation by German poet, playwright, and philosopher Friedrich Schiller in his "Aesthetic Letters": "Man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays."

One obvious channel of game play in modern culture is sports. But Caccia says there is a "tension between pure play and competitive play," where the latter in effect swallows up the former under the pressure of money. And yet, many remain avid spectators because they long for that magical moment of "seeing a player in a moment of pure play." Caccia cites as an example soccer superstar David Beckham's spectacular 1996 mid-field scoring kick (it starts at the 2:30 point of this YouTube video). Introducing apps that have this quality of pure playfulness can result in big payoffs, he implies.

The gaming industry today is a $67 billion a year business, twice the size of the music industry, he says. Once the realm of younger males embroiled in war and conflict oriented play, games are now "completely mainstream, with women make up a sizeable percentage of some gamer categories, and the dominant theme is entertainment.

And, just as in the enterprise, mobility is transforming the industry, which until recently was focused on PC and console development models and priorities. Caccia says that the performance of mobile games will match that of console and PC-based play in 2014, in large part due to the increasing use of powerful, dedicated graphics processing units in mobile devices. Game developers, following their audience, "are moving into mobile in a big way."

The gaming industry faces a number of challenges, which are mirrored in today's enterprise, he says.

First is the shift from the console/PC development to mobile development. Incumbents in both the gaming and enterprise apps are struggling with this, often losing out to newer entrants, as the mobile shift creates opportunities for new and disruptive mobile services. He contrasted the modest growth of Nintendo's classic Super Mario game with the exploding popularity of Rovio's Angry Birds, driven almost entirely by mobile users.

Second is that these disruptive opportunities are often what Caccia calls "data driven." The traditional approach is for an enterprise to keep control of the data, to be the sole provider and the sole arbiter on how the data is used. The alternative is to see data as a resource, and to provide easy access to it for outsiders "so they can build something with it."

Game developers are looking at how to build "data-centric structures to drive high-yield games," he says. He points to Federal Express as one enterprise that understands this. "They're using an API and opening their data up to outsiders, in part to outsource mobile app development," he says.

The data centric trend goes hand in hand with a third challenge: the game, or app, as a service, allowing new business models that can be created, explored, and exploited. Game companies, for example, are shifting from seeing the game as a stand-alone product to something that forges an ongoing, sometimes real-time, relationship with the users. Instead of focusing on the one-time purchase, game companies are leveraging in-app purchasing, the sale of virtual goods, as well as real-time analysis of gaming behaviors to tweak the game's behavior and performance, optimizing it for players.

Zynga's online "FarmVille" is a good example of the impact this can have. "They realized that the game [by itself] is a very small part of this picture," Caccia says. "They monitor their data on an hourly basis and use it to make a variety of tweaks and changes." Closing in on 300 million users, Zynga's model drove about $445 million (or 12 percent) of Facebook's total revenue in 2011, from payment processing fees related to Zynga's sales of virtual goods and from direct advertising purchased by Zynga.

The fourth challenge is the UI experience. What Caccia calls the "retinal standard" -- how well or even beautiful the app experience is -- is getting higher. "Once you see high-resolution, you don't go back," he says. He urges developers to see "information as beauty" and to realize that "information can be rendered beautifully."

But he suggests that this UI experience is in some ways less a function of the device than of the services the device presents. "The services 'behind' the device are becoming independent of the device itself," he argues.

If so, then an urgent question for developers is "how to make your content work on anything?" Perhaps not surprisingly for a vendor of multi-platform development tools, Caccia says "you have to start with the idea 'we'll deliver this [app or content or service] anywhere.'" He points to Netflix, which announced in early 2012 that "together with our partners, we've shipped over 800 different models of Netflix-enabled devices."

"That's enormous penetration," Caccia says.

He concluded with two points summarizing his talk: "Find ways of delighting your customers and users," he says. "And every pixel matters. Consumers respond emotionally to design."

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World. Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnwwEmail: john_cox@nww.comBlog RSS feed: http://www.networkworld.com/community/blog/2989/feed

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This story, "What enterprise mobile apps can learn from mobile games" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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