Mobile Computing | Feature
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Open Source Apps, With a Vendor Assist
Every week, it seems, colleges and universities issue press releases extolling their entry into the world of mobile campus apps. Indeed, it has become almost de rigueur for institutions to have these technological trimmings. For some schools, though, the path to a mobile offering is not so easy. Not every school, for example, has in-house developers available to build a native app. Nor, in this era of shrinking budgets, can every school afford to hire a developer.
Fortunately, a third option is emerging--an open source approach with vendor underpinnings--that can dramatically reduce costs and time to market. While the end result may not always be as elegant as a native app, it provides schools with a comparatively easy way to get a campus app on the map.
It's an approach that is winning fans among customers of SunGard Higher Education, whose Mobile Connection framework makes it relatively simple to develop and deploy secure mobile applications across multiple operating systems. The product, along with a set of starter applications, is based on the Rhomobile Rhodes open source framework and permits schools to create apps that integrate seamlessly with SunGard Banner.
"You have to be a customer to download SunGard's Mobile Connection, but Rhodes--the underlying framework--is open source," said Dave Cooke, lead mobile application developer at the University of Manitoba in Canada, who selected Mobile Connection to create a campus app for the university's 20,000 students. While researching development options, Cooke estimated that it would take as much as a year to develop an app from scratch. As it turns out, the school deployed its first app in just five months.
"Our management team wanted to get an app deployed fairly quickly, and SunGard had a solution that would help us attain this goal," recalled Cooke. "There were no startup costs. We just downloaded the framework and started development."
Speed to market is also what appealed to Brad Rippe, IT project leader for the North Orange County Community College District (CA), who used Mobile Connection to kick-start the district's mobile strategy. "SunGard did some initial work and provided a quick-start application that allowed us to get up and running fairly quickly," he said. "The quick-start application provided integration with SunGard Banner and security [authentication and authorization], and a few mobile app features that we could build upon and use as examples for our own mobile apps."
Because the underlying code is open source, university developers can develop apps with whatever functionality they like. SunGard expedites the process by providing m-Apps, a starter kit of application components that makes it possible to launch version 1.0 of an app quite rapidly--with the added benefit of SunGard Banner integration.
Manitoba's app, branded UManitoba, was officially launched last February, and the mobile app went live in app stores by late June. Intended for students, the app allows them to access their course grades and schedules, real-time bus arrivals and departures, campus maps, campus directory, news and events, and sports. It also allows students to do a one-stop search for virtually any item within the library system.
For NOCCCD's Rippe, one of the system's biggest draws is its ability to create apps across multiple operating systems--a process that can otherwise suck up enormous amounts of time and money.
"We were able to use Mobile Connection to write one code base for three different platforms--iPhone, Android, BlackBerry--creating applications for three different schools with minor changes," explained Rippe, whose district serves about 40,000 students and includes Cypress College, Fullerton College, and the School of Continuing Education. "This sped up the development process, reduced the complexity of the project, and allowed us to deliver a product much faster than we could have if we wrote directly using SDKs [software development kits]."
Given the district's financial pressures, the biggest advantage of all may have been cost. "SunGard is built on Rhodes/Grails/Ruby, which are all open technologies," noted Rippe. "For us, this translates into no upfront licensing costs. We didn't have a budget set aside for mobile software, so this was very appealing to us."
In terms of total investment, Rippe noted that the cost was low: "We had hardware to dedicate to the project. Our investment entailed an SSL certificate, an Apple developer program ($99), an Android developer program ($25), and a Blackberry program ($0). Our initial expenses--minus development--were around $600."
The district's mobile suite now includes news, class schedules, grades, campus maps, a staff directory, and transit routes for students traveling by foot, bus, train, or car.
Since the end of September, the district's apps have been downloaded more than 6,800 times, which Rippe considers "very successful." He estimates that roughly half of the student population use smartphones, "which means about 34 percent of the campus population that can utilize apps have downloaded them in the four months that they've been available." He's hopeful that the school can double the number of downloads with the next version.
The User Experience
The low cost and rapid, multiplatform deployment will obviously appeal to many schools with small IT shops. As might be expected, though, there is a downside.
"The user interface is a web engine," explained Cooke. "Using a web engine to drive the user interface, along with other technologies used in the architecture, causes the apps to behave more slowly than natively designed apps. It's a trade-off. For institutions, the idea of write once/deploy everywhere is pretty sexy. It means lower cost, faster time to market, a broader market to target."
At the same time, Cooke is now having second thoughts about his school's strategy, noting that users don't care about the cost-benefit ratio—they simply want a good product. "They want the app to operate just like any app they download, and it's not as fast as a native app " he noted, " I worry that users will just stop using it. That's why we're looking at alternatives that would improve the end-user experience."
Even with Mobile Connection's limitations, though, the choice for schools with limited resources may still be fairly easy: no app at all or a cross-platform app that can provide student services. For schools deciding how to proceed, Rippe suggested that they assess what they're trying to accomplish, as well as the resources available for the project.
"Once you evaluate your institution's needs, resources, and situation, you should have a good starting point," Rippe concluded. "Mobile Connection may not be the right solution for every institution, but it was the right decision for our district."
SunGard Community Resources
For both the University of Manitoba and the North Orange County Community College District, SunGard offers another vendor perk: access to its community of users.
"SunGard created the Community Source Initiative, which allows developers to share code that they have created with others," explained NOCCCD's Rippe. "It also has the Commons for the mobile platform, which allows us to connect with other institutions in the same position, to collaborate, and to gain information on developing and deploying applications using SunGard's solution." He hopes that other schools will soon join the Community Source Initiative, so that his district can leverage code from other institutions in future applications.
Manitoba's Cooke said he used the Commons "a lot." He also downloaded an app from SunGard's Shared Code Repository, which "worked very well, was easy to set up and install, and to deploy in testing." He had it working in a matter of minutes. "A lot of that had to do with how the m-App was written. The developer really did a great job in coding the app, and in documentation."
Toni Fuhrman is a writer and creative consultant based in Los Angeles.