In the beginning, there was email – at least it was for enterprise mobility. It would be difficult to argue against the idea that email was the incentive to bring mobility in to the enterprise. It was the first thing that the enterprise and users sought to enable on their devices. It is the now-cresting wave the BlackBerry rode in to the enterprise. It was a primary mover. So, you would think that as the grandfather of enterprise mobile functionality, it would be further along from as an enterprise experience, but the smooth operation and integration just isn’t there yet. Some of that is due to my way of approaching the medium, but a lot of it is due to the single task nature of mobility.
I have to confess, when it comes to email there is an application that has me held in a PC mind-rut – Microsoft Outlook. I have spent the last 15 years of my professional career using the same piece of software for email, calendaring, and contacts. Not only that, but Microsoft has also spent the same amount of time refining Outlook’s integration and capabilities. (I don’t want to digress into a conversation about bloatware and crapplications – my point is, much time has been devoted to how the features work in concert). I can easily drag and drop documents from an email to a calendar appointment, invite email recipients to a meeting, etc. There really is a seamless experience in moving data around in the outlook context. Yes, the same basic functionality exists on the phone, but as isolated components. I have an email app. I have a calendar app. I have a contacts app. There is interplay between them, but it is not fluid. For example, today I needed to copy a file I received in one email to another. In Outlook, I would have been able to just drag and drop the file from one window to the next and be on my way. But on the phone, I had to save the file to the device, then attach it to the next email. While functionally there wasn’t any impediment, it was clunky and took a lot more time and steps. This will not work in an enterprise context and should be considered a fail. The interaction between components must be improved in order to be considered enterprise-ready. Your enterprise app ecosystem should be aware or have a broader context then just itself and provide a focused, yet rich experience. There are other Outlook features that are of use in an enterprise setting that I have grown accustomed to for email management and miss in a mobile context. For example email rules for managing incoming email.
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The second challenge with email in a mobile-only setting is a visual one. The native experience on the phone assumes that viewing is only going to transpire on the phone and not in the context of a monitor which I have my device connected to all day at the office. So the font size that looks decent on my phone display looks enormous on the monitor. There are settings that allow you to change the font size – but even set to the smallest setting, the experience is BIG. This is great if you are sight impaired, but for the average person this is a limiting factor, as only a certain number of items can be on the screen at a time. This cuts down the ability to scan a list of emails quickly. I spent a lot of time (probably more than I should have) trying out many email apps on the market to attempt to resolve this issue. There are a few apps, such as MailDroid on Android, that have really taken spacial consideration in mind with their UI design and it improve this experience greatly. What the different mobile OS vendors need to get hip to, is the capability for a device to context shift from a small screen to a large one.
Lastly, I know there are those of you who wish/think that email is dead. For those of you on the vanguard, it might be. But it is alive and well in the enterprise. Some of this is directly due to the functionality provided with a full-featured mail client. Perhaps, in the context of a mobile-only world, email as we know it will be put out to pasture as communication is able transpire in a much more immediate and real-time manner. However, for enterprise users, I can’t envision a scenario absent of the need for documents, calendars, communication (that is longer than 140 characters) to be organized and held at least for the short term. Many organizations have retention policies that would need to be accounted for in a mobile context. As well, I can’t envision a scenario where these data elements don’t need to seamlessly move between the different functionality.
Email is certainly the gateway drug for enterprise mobility. It is almost always the first step users do in the rush to BYOD. Yet for something that is so core, we still have a long way to go. This doesn’t need to be at the expense of the advantages of mobility, but it does need to consider enterprise use cases. What do you think – is mobile email ready for enterprise prime-time? Am I just an old dog? What other enterprise requirements around email have I left out? Post a comment and let me know.
Benjamin Robbins is currently a Principal at Palador, a firm that focuses on providing strategic guidance to enterprises in the areas of mobility, apps, and data. Mr. Robbins resides in Seattle and blogs regularly at http://www.remotelymobileblog.com