App development strategy must be mobile-first for hospital CIOs

Recent chatter in the healthcare CIO world has centered around the question of when (and whether) to develop mobile-enabled apps for certain online functions. But outside of healthcare, the conversation already has taken a huge leap forward, and if hospital CIOs don't keep up, they'll find themselves light years behind their colleagues in banking, finance, insurance and other highly tech-saturated industries...again.

The new question: Should your application development begin with--rather than end with--mobile development? I'm more and more convinced that mobile-first is the direction healthcare, particularly, will have to take to engage patients and supply workflow-appropriate tools to physicians.

CIO Magazine recently wrote an exciting commentary on the debate, delivering crucial guidance for hospitals who want to keep up with the exploding mobile market, and the increasing demands of both patients and physicians.

"Mobile use is growing so fast, it'll overtake desktops and PCs in the next year or two," Luke Wroblewski, former chief design architect at Yahoo, tells CIO Magazine. "We have to prepare for the inevitable shift."

Must you jettison laptops and desktops entirely? Probably not. Certain aspects of your software development--for finance, administration and other departments--will have to remain on laptops and desktops to allow for the processing power and database scope needed for these functions.

But for patient- and physician-facing apps, mobile-first is emerging as the best, and possibly most efficient, way to go.

Here's why:

  • Online applications don't take advantage of unique mobile functionality: The common process of writing a thin mobile client version of an existing software with familiar languages like HTML doesn't incorporate smartphone and tablet capabilities like plug-ins, GPS locators, cameras and other gadgets, according to CIO. To capture that functionality, the mobile version has to be re-written for each platform, and each release.
  • New middleware developers are doing the "grunt" work: A list of new app-development platform--such as Antenna Software, Sybase, and Appcelerator--are specializing in building the core mobile apps that can easily be adapted for a specific use, like possibly healthcare, and then run natively on several different platforms at once. CIO also plugs the forthcoming Worldwide Web Consortium's HTML5 protocol as providing mobile-friendly interactive capabilities that can run on multiple platforms.
  • Mobile-developed apps can be easier to port back to the Web than vice-versa: Mobile development requires a "laser's focus on [the end user] activities because we don't have the real estate to throw everything on there," as you would a desktop or laptop screen, Eric Miller, senior IT VP for Erie Insurance tells CIO. In healthcare, that focus can be key to writing software that fits into a physician's often esoteric practice and workflow.

Adding back buttons, functions, images and graphics for the larger desktop or laptop version may actually be simpler than trying to reduce a full-size webpage.

A few challenges for those ready to take the mobile-first leap:

  • Your app development team must be dedicated and nimble: The frequency of updates, patches and fixes for evolving platforms can be dizzying. Some IT directors tell CIO that they update their iOS and Android apps every 30 to 60 days. This requires a total focus on your mobile apps, and the platforms they're running on. Some CIOs say they've create separate development teams--one for the global enterprise strategy, and one for the apps themselves, to ensure someone is on top of updates and upgrades.
  • Mobile networks can't always offer the speed and reliability of your own network: And in some places, they aren't available at all. Apps need to be optimized to handle lower speeds, and to weather the occasional connection hiccup.
  • Mobile devices themselves are slower, hold less data and have battery life issues: Hard, constant use in the field could quickly suck the average smartphone dry. Note: Some recent research may have found a protocol that will extend battery life by 50 percent, solving some of that problem.
  • Costs may be rising: Larger telecom carriers are doing away with unlimited data plans, which wouldn't necessarily impinge on mobile devices that you provide to your own employees if you have network/unlimited data contracts with the carriers. But for employees using their own devices, the ability to limit data usage may be important.

- Sara