Editor’s note: Just a year ago, the question of whether to use HTML5 or native apps in building mobile applications was a big debate. Not so today. Dave Miller, V.P., Business Solutions Development, Vertical Solutions, Inc. discusses how building field service management and CRM solutions on HTML5 allows VSI to offer platform- and device-agnostic solutions to help companies manage their service operations.
SandHill.com: A year ago, people said it was too early to go with HTML5 instead of native apps, and some people said it might not happen for several years. What changed the pace of adoption?
Dave Miller: A year is a lifetime in the software industry. Although some people may have thought it would be years before HTML5 would evolve to the point that was acceptable, it has now reached a point in which it is a stable and robust development environment. The standard is still not completely finalized, but the changes you will see moving ahead are expected to be further enhancements, as opposed to drastic changes.
The decision to move to HTML5 has really been driven by all of the forces in the mobile marketplace. It’s constantly evolving. VSI started in mobile applications 15 or more years ago doing native applications on laptop PCs. We then did native applications on Palm Pilots, on BlackBerries, on Windows Pocket PCs, a plethora of different platforms. At various times throughout the evolution process we all thought that one or other of those platforms was going to take over and revolutionize the industry. All of them have gone by the wayside with the exception of Windows, to a degree. It’s an evolving market, and it’s still up in the air as to who is going to own the marketplace.
SandHill.com: Your company develops and supports CRM contact center and service management solutions. Were customers asking you for something that would go across all the various platforms and devices, or were you trying to get out ahead of competitors?
Dave Miller: We have a diverse client base, some of which want to use Android, and are determined to proceed with it. Others had already purchased a battery of iPads. One of our larger clients on the mobile side has recently made the decision that they are going with Windows tablets moving ahead.
There was no clear-cut choice between iOS, Android and Windows among our client base, so we were driven to HTML5 as a platform that would play across the board on all three, allowing us to address all our customer requirements.
VSI has been around for more than 25 years. We’ve been developing mobile for a large portion of that time and have seen various trends come and go. We learned a lot over that time. We made occasional mistakes along the way by focusing on one environment or another. Going with HTML5 addresses that.
SandHill.com: In these solutions, your customers can implement screen, form and process changes without custom programming. How is that possible?
Dave Miller: Instead of having to make separate code changes for each type of device, if you want to change the form and fit of a screen, you do HTML editing once and deploy that across the board, regardless of type of device. This is instead of having to write something in C# or Java that would then have to be rewritten at the code level for each device OS.
By doing it in an HTML5 environment, you can make changes in one place and deploy them universally across the board.
SandHill.com: One of the other advantages of native apps in the debate over HTML5 is that users can access an app without an Internet connection. How has that changed?
Dave Miller: Earlier versions of HTML have very limited offline storage inherent in their design. But today, on the various platforms in which it plays, HTML5 carries its own level of offline storage. You have to exploit the capabilities of the different platforms that you’re connecting to do that; but it allows you to be offline and develop the synchronization processes after the fact when you connect back online.
SandHill.com: So developing mobile solutions that can run both online and offline, enabling workers to access the applications even without Internet connectivity was a key consideration in your decision to go with HTML5?
Dave Miller: It has been a key factor in the selection process for most of our clients. Some technicians spend 90 percent of their time offline. They are simply not allowed to have the wireless turned on, on any device, cell phone or tablet, when they’re inside their environment. It’s critical in some environments. The employee may be working down in the inner depths of a multi-story building. Or he may be in a shielded room in a hospital.
The key is that the technician can still perform his job and capture all the information that is needed and respond to everything that is in his queue, regardless of Internet connectivity.
SandHill.com: Did the development of the field service apps in HTML5 impact any applications that were being used in the call center so that they were then revised to be in HTML5?
Dave Miller: No. You can segment your application to have various aspects of it on an HTML5 basis without impacting other system functionality. That said, it allows you to do things in a migratory fashion so you can determine what you need to deploy across multiple mobile platforms.
We selected the primary areas that the field needs. They need to be able to go through and review their work order queues, update their work orders, order parts, communicate with a customer and have that recorded in the service request. They also need to be able to post their labor, expenses and parts usage and capture a customer signature and transfer it back to the contact center or to the service management back at headquarters.
They can then view it in the standard agent mode, which is currently in HTML4, but they still have visibility into everything that transpired on the mobile device. That’s the real beauty of it.
Eventually we envision that the entire platform, the entire agent mode will ultimately be in an HTML5 environment; but right now the predominant need for that is for what we deploy on the mobile side.
Obviously you don’t want to deploy everything that you have available in your standard agent mode on mobile. The mobile platforms, as much as they have advanced over the years, still aren’t as advanced as a full form Windows laptop or desktop environment. They typically don’t have the resources and don’t have the need for the entire application in a field environment. So we tailor what we present in the HTML5 world to meet the requirements of the field reps.
SandHill.com: Are most of your customers using the field service apps in a particular industry?
Dave Miller: Many of our customers are in capital equipment maintenance, HVAC and plumbing, banking equipment, and medical device repair.
The business model differs depending upon which of those marketplaces they are addressing, but many of the same service paradigms can apply across the board.
Everyone seems to think service is service and parts are parts. That’s not really true. While there are basic service concepts that apply across the different marketplaces, each service niche has its own set of nuances. We build our application in a flexible enough manner to allow us to address the breadth of the different service environments through workflows and configuration.
SandHill.com: When a customer decides they want to implement VSI’s software, what happens to any existing apps that they have? Do you then change those, or do they use those in connection with new apps you develop for them?
Dave Miller: It depends. If they are adjunct apps that would not be associated with their service management system, there is no reason they wouldn’t continue to use those. We’ll replace their service management system but work in concert with other systems in their environment.
We have the ability to integrate with other systems in our client environments. A perfect example is that we always exploit our customers’ ERP systems rather than telling them they have to use just a certain ERP.
SandHill.com: Given how much HTML5 has advanced, why do you think some companies are still making the decision to go with native apps?
Dave Miller: There are a lot of mixed thoughts among different vendors. Some insist upon native apps and may have valid reasons for doing so. But it seems that some are really just sticking with that primarily because they’ve already made the investment and they don’t have the resources or want to extend those resources to give a more all-inclusive approach such as HTML5.
Some vendors that have invested heavily into a particular platform are not in a position of redesigning their mobile world to accommodate HTML5. So they tell their customers, “You have to use a particular mobile environment,” say Android or iPad. In our opinion, that just doesn’t play in today’s world.
Dave Miller is V.P., Business Solutions Development for Vertical Solutions, Inc. He has been with the company since 1996. Prior to VSI, he worked in the field service industry for more than 20 years, holding a progression of technical and management positions. In his current role, Dave directs the development of VSI’s service management and mobile applications. His extensive industry experience provides him with a unique perspective on the challenges facing service organizations. Contact him at Dave.Miller@Vertsol.com.
Di Freeze is editor at SandHill.com.