ISTEP Case Study: Liquid Bronze (Malinko)
Based in Manchester Science Park and established in 2000, Liquid Bronze is a software development company with a track record of delivering workflow, management information systems and remote data collection solutions to small and medium sized businesses across a range of market sectors.
Many of the solutions provided form business critical elements of their clients systems; a recent example being their work with the Double Glazing & Conservatory Ombudsman Scheme (DGCOS) for which Liquid Bronze built (and currently maintain) a Performance Analysis Management Information System that gives the company’s member organisations the ability to register jobs with the ombudsman, allows the ombudsman scheme to monitor and manage jobs nationally and also links with external systems for regulatory compliance.
Company web site: www.malinkoapp.com
Liquid Bronze had developed an online CRM, job scheduling and reporting software system called Malinko and believed that, in order to leverage the emergence of smart phones and their increasingly widespread use, they needed to design and develop a mobile version of Malinko. The company wanted their clients to be able to use mobile devices to log into the application and perform a subset of the functions offered by their full web package.
“The assistance required from InfoLab21 was to help develop a native mobile phone app for Malinko. As this was something that we did not have the in house expertise to do, it would require training and taking time out of the current development programme, which we did not have the capacity to do. There was already a mobile optimised view of Malinko, but this did not allow any reporting back of information and we found that increasingly this was demanded by businesses.” Antony Quinn, Malinko
In order to develop the best possible mobile phone ‘app’ there was a requirement for it to work on a wide range of mobile devices or, more specifically, a number of mobile operating systems. In addition to this, the decision needed to be made whether to develop a solution that would run directly on the phone (native app) or be web based and accessed through a mobile internet browser.
After consultation with the client it was decided to develop a native app for the following reasons:
- Malinko is a solution for assisting staff working out of the office, so they would need to have a solution allowing them to view information on a mobile device.
- The company had already tried integrating the product with TomTom (a manufacturer of automotive navigation systems) but found that many of their potential customers were reluctant to buy a separate TomTom SatNav device and be required to have it fitted to their vehicles.
- Increasingly, companies are employing a policy of ‘bring your own device’ or BYOD to work a practice that seems to be gaining pace as powerful mobile devices become cheaper. Particularly in one of the company’s target sectors, (companies offering cleaning services) many staff carry their own mobile device with them so it made sense to utilise the existing technology to provide a customer focused solution and reduce costs.
To allow for the range of applications the client requested any solution would need to run on Apple and Blackberry platforms as well as devices using the Android operating system (OS). This added extra complexity as developing each OS presented its own challenges:
- Android is used on a wide range of devices solution would need to work on many different kinds of devices with different hardware specifications and screen sizes
- Apple has very stringent rules for approving apps to be sold though their on-line app store
- Blackberries use a separate OS and are often used in specific market sectors
Liquid Bronze was referred to Lancaster University for business support by Justyna Dabrowska at Manchester Science Park where the company are tenants. The company made contact with staff from The School of Computing and Communications located in the InfoLab21 facility and after an initial discussion with business support staff regarding the ‘need’ and the company’s eligibility for the support, Liquid Bronze were accepted onto ISTEP (InfoLab21 Strategic Technology Exploitation Programme). The company met with Dr Paul Okanda and Lei Lui, one of the school’s PhD students, a few weeks later.
“It sounded like Lei would be a great fit as he had a background in developing mobile phone apps. In the interim we had spoken to a number of our customers and collected information on what kinds of features they would expect a mobile app to have. We then prioritised these in order to get a version out as quickly as possible – this informed our meeting with Lei and allowed us to set the scope of the work.” Antony Quinn, Malinko
Following discussion with Dr Okanda, Lei Lui decided to use a framework called ‘Phone Gap’ in order to develop the app. This allowed him to ensure that the app could work on a number of different platforms. Also, as this project was a discrete piece of work, its implementation did not have any impact on the current user base of Malinko, which meant the users were able to continue using the existing mobile optimised view of the main application. The first version of the new app was completed within a couple of weeks which allowed Liquid Bronze to have it ‘beta tested’ in real life situations whilst they continued with planned development. This beta testing also gave them a list of required usability improvements. The app is available in the Android store and Apple store and is awaiting approval from Blackberry for their store.
“It has taken 4 months to get to this point. We do have further development planned for the app, such as allowing people to take photos within the app and send more detailed job information, however the continued development will be done in house as the extra input from Lancaster University has given us the space to train our own staff to the required level.” Antony Quinn, Malinko
The new app allows people to enter information out in the field and immediately updates the system so this can be seen within the office. It also allows the office staff to enter job information and the staff to see it immediately. That said, whilst the company has had enquiries from clients wishing to know when the iPhone solution will be available through the Apple App Store, given the recent completion of the development, Liquid Bronze are still evaluating what the full impact of the solution will be. The company has reported one immediate benefit of having the solution in place as they have recently been awarded a contract that had a requirement for a mobile solution and the company believes that without the implementation of this app, they would not have won that contract.
“The development of the app enabled us to win an initial contract and put us in a stronger position to win further work in the future.” Antony Quinn, Malinko
The mobile apps are now being used for home care and domiciliary care companies - see www.CareOutThere.co.uk for more information.
Prior to starting this project with the ISTEP Team at InfoLab21, Liquid Bronze had a web-based application aimed at mobile workforces who could view job information on their mobile phones only through a mobile internet browser and could not send any information back to their main system. This didn't make any sense, as web-based applications are perfectly placed in order to have comprehensive mobile applications as part of their offering that are able to operate through a range of none specific/bespoke devices.
“We think we are the first to have done this where it isn't aimed at enterprise level. Although we have seen delivery companies use handheld devices, these have always been specialist devices, rather than using regular hardware that most people now have.” Antony Quinn, Malinko
For further information on the ISTEP Project and other business collaboration services available at InfoLab21 please contact Samantha Winder (Business Relationship Officer) on email@example.com, / 01524 510463 or visit www.infolab21.lancs.ac.uk/business/istep.
For further information on Liquid Bronze see: www.malinkoapp.co.uk/