Companies needing to create mobile applications for international use face many problems. Regional variations in IT, business practices and culture mean they should favour simple technology and sacrifice range for usability.
As mobile and wireless applications become more common, organisations are starting to consider multinational mobility. Do conventional globalisation techniques apply to mobile applications, and what other challenges does the combination of mobility and globalisation pose?
From a technical perspective, it is certainly possible to develop internationalised mobile applications. Key client platforms, such as Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME), Symbian and Pocket PC, provide some technical support but there are many challenges beyond simply developing globalised code.
Many aspects of mobile and wireless technology vary by region. Take cellular networks. About 75% of the world uses GSM, 15% uses variants of code division multiple access and 10% uses other technologies. Many regions use more than one technology and every technology has different performance characteristics.
To further complicate the issue, the roll-out of new technology such as 3G is proceeding at different rates in different countries. Consequently, network performance and quality of service can vary, even within a single country.
There are also regional variations in interfaces to network features such as messaging and location services. Furthermore, some territories have excellent network coverage - serving 99% of their country's population - but this is not universal. For example, coverage in the US is strong in metropolitan areas, but patchy in the countryside.
One operator seldom provides the best coverage for an entire country, let alone across a continent. This causes architectural conflicts. A region with excellent coverage might need a thin client application, whereas a region with poor coverage might require the extra complexity of a thick client architecture capable of autonomous operation outside network coverage.
And some operators may not provide the technical features, such as location services or generic IP access, that applications may demand. Some services, such as downloading apps onto handsets, are controlled by operators and will have different policies and pricing in different regions.
Wi-Fi hotspots are a useful technology, but international availability is patchy and roaming agreements are still incomplete.
There is also the problem of device diversity. There are more than 300 brands of handset available in Europe, which vary widely in performance and firmware and pose major challenges in terms of porting and support.
In other territories, the primary and sometimes only source of devices such as handsets and personal digital assistants is the network operators. This may constrain the selection of devices or force unwanted application diversity between territories.
The main consequence is that developers of multinational mobile applications must satisfy a more complex and diverse set of requirements than those operating in a single locale.
The economics of a mobile application may be sensitive to telecoms pricing. For example, some applications demand flat-rate data, which is not available everywhere. Even large, multinational operators have not yet fully integrated their services, so they cannot offer a unified pricing model. Costs for data applications can rise dramatically when roaming.
Some operators require applications deployed on phone handsets to be certified and signed. Such schemes can be regionally fragmented, although initiatives such as Symbian Signed may provide a basis for global schemes on some platforms.
Return on investment for mobile applications tends to involve factors such as travelling times and the cost of labour, which vary by region. The prevalence of commuting, and other social factors, may affect the demand for services such as mobile e-mail.
Legal requirements and working practice agreements vary substantially between nations. These may affect where an application can be used, the security required for personal information stored on mobile devices and the uses to which information, such as handset location, can be put.
It is not uncommon for mobile application deployments to fail for social and working practice reasons. Application design and development practices must take account of these issues, which vary across the world.
Internationalisation is complicated by national variations in mobile technology and working practices, which increase risk and cost. Mobile and wireless applications and devices are likely to have a relatively short lifespan, so organisations should demand a return on their investment in under 24 months. Furthermore, the short iterative development cycles that benefit mobile projects may be unsuited to complex multinational projects.
Nick Jones is a vice- president in Gartner Research and a Gartner research fellow