Can Citrix Project GoldenGate make it worth delivering virtualized applications to a smartphone?

Application Virtualization’s benefit is that your business application is no longer dependent on the operating system. This is Good because you can now deploy applications quickly and easily and therefore cheaply and more productively. Application Virtualization is not a new technology – Citrix, for instance, have helped provide virtualized applications for a number of years. With Citrix’s products you could deliver win32 applications to DOS and Win16 environments. Later, Windows applications could be delivered to Linux environments. While other vendors have produced similar functionality, Citrix are a market leader in enabling businesses to deliver applications to a wide variety of devices which has expanded to include SmartPhones. Citrix customers can deliver applications to iPhones, to Android devices, to Blackberrys. Citrix’s device compatibility is an impressive list. Surely, a great benefit to business – roaming users can access their applications as they do back at the office, full functionality, no code changes.

Sounds great. Too good to be true. And the thing about too good to be true is that often, it isn’t. Why would delivering applications to SmartPhones be a bad thing?

Citrix’s recently announced  Project GoldenGate demonstrates a solution to delivering Windows applications for small form factor devices.  Citrix have chosen Microsoft Exchange as the target for its demonstration, re-writing Microsoft Outlook so that it fits the 3.5”  screen of the iPhone and other smartphone offerings.

Yet, it is hard to understand the ‘need’ to provide a means to deliver Microsoft Office applications to smartphones.  The small form factor offered by smartphones is a poor format to operate on for large document work: the keyboard offering is either cumbersome, or cumbersome and makes the screen smaller making working all the more cumbersome. When you are using a smartphone you are on the move, or you have a short period of time to check some details. As a smartphone users it is more likely you want a summary of information, maybe a small bit of data entry, maybe you need to tie-in with a camera as a scanner: but, the emphasis is that you work with the medium – it is not a desktop replacement tool, it is a tool for people on the move. A number of organizations have looked at delivering their Microsoft OS based applications to  smartphones and found “it works, but it is not usable”.

In this respect, Project GoldenGate appears an innovate move: provide a way of letting users access their applications in that smaller form factor. Yet, the question of competition within the mobile application marketplace needs to be considered.  Apple’s focus is on delivering functionality to the iPhone customer base via Apple’s iTunes App Store. Similarly, Android developers are working hard within their application marketplace.  Research In Motion (RIM)  have a user base for application deployment to their Blackberry customers, especially to corporations (despite recent wrangles with some foreign governments) indeed at WES2010 in Orlando earlier in the year, there was a massive push to promote and utilise RIM’s application platform to deliver content and functionality directly to the Blackberry device to enable businesses to let their users access company data faster and smarter to increase productivity, keep costs down and help improve customer satisfaction. RIM want to out-store Apple.  And why not?  There is a great opportunity to open new markets for developers, provide additional value-add for a carrier or device vendor. There is a lot of money to  be made by targeting new application ideas at the smartphone market. Citrix could jump into this space by providing a platform independent development environment. Develop on this “Gate”, and Citrix have a market opportunity to deliver to across devices; as long as Citrix keep the Receiver functionality consistent between operating systems. However this move would put Citrix in direct competition with Apple, Android and RIM’s application stores.  It has to be noted that these application stores hold the (free) Citrix Receiver and not the applications that the Receiver would provide access to.  It is possible that Citrix’s offering will work but, but how long might it be before the application store owners see such a delivery mechanism as anti-competitive? If this was the case, how long would the freely available Citrix Receiver remain freely available?

More importantly, let us learn from Microsoft. Microsoft’s advantage has long been due to the fact that  its all about the developers. Recently, Apple have been very successful at courting developers to create applications for their App Store and, both RIM and Android are catching up.  It is doubtful that Citrix, who have little experience in the consumer market will be able to catch up: will businesses want to invest in an application when alternatives are available?

Here is a conundrum – the advantage of application virtualization is that “the application is not dependent on the OS“. But, that lack of dependence requires “something” to be in place – a runtime-client for example. If that client doesn’t exist – you can’t deploy your application. An additional advantage of application virtualization is that “you shouldn’t need to change the application” . But if you need to “reformat the output to fit on a different screen” – that’s a change, that is development work. The advantage of solutions such as Citrix’s is that  – the client that lets you deploy to devices is free, and that you don’t need to change the application code.

Yet… do you really need this functionality? Websites are increasingly smart phone/mobile savvy; if you’ve a web based application is likely already formatted for smartphones.  Devices come with their own encryption – so the need to secure data in the datacentre is less – more so as it is likely to be needed for off-line use. While “device independence” seems a laudable undertaking as there are a great number of devices – it is fair to say the operating  systems those devices support are far fewer. If you are targeting an organization (and increasingly likely to come across organisations wanting to roll-out Blackberrys or iPhones to a wide groups of users), where you’ll get the true benefit of a smartphone enabled application – then you standardise on a model as a simple economy of scale: in which case, why not deliver the application directly to the device? Moreover, if you embrace the concept of ‘cloud computing’ your development time to enhance your business application could in fact be re-sold by putting the application back out into the application store for wider use.

Citrix are an innovative company. Project GoldenGate appears an innovative response to feedback from customers who have tried application virtualization on a smartphone and found the service wanting. Yet, if Citrix limit GoldenGate to Officesque functionality – and email at that – they miss the greater market: and offer very little in the way of extra services. You could argue, you’ve got to start somewhere, and everyone needs email, and if Citrix try and take on wider application development and promote recoding, they offer their enterprise customers an incentive yet will Citrix also incur the wrath of market place rules? But, is providing access to an application that is already well served going to maintain customer enthusiasm

Application virtualization can deliver applications to smartphone devices. It is cool. But, it is cool when you see it for the first time, and it rapidly becomes less cool the more that you use it because the interface is so cumbersome – and if you’re connected to a non-LAN or Wi-fi environment what functionality you can use can be a slow and painful experience. Project GoldenGate may be a nice to have for some existing Citrix corporate customers, possibly for a SaaS vendor – but by the time Citrix mature this offering will either web applications work just as well on a smartphones, or will there be established development houses who can offer application that work directly on your company smartphone devices without the Citrix infrastructure and without the Citrix license cost?