IT Life: Making Mobile Data Relevant

James_Shannon Ahoto

James Shannon likes the challenge of making mobile data connect with real life

James Shannon is chief architect and senior vice president of software at digital pen maker Anoto. He has spent twenty years in the industry, and founded mobile app developer DevelopIQ, which was acquired by Anoto in 2005. He has worked on cloud infrastructure, security, application architecture and mobile app development.

Mobile data meets real life

Rugby World Cup © patrimonio designs ltd ShutterstockWhat has been your favourite project so far?
For me, software is most meaningful when it directly enhances the interaction between its users and life events. My favourite project was therefore the development and delivery of mobile and tablet apps for the IRB 2011 Rugby World Cup.

This project came at a time when responsive web design, cloud delivery and the capabilities of mobile apps intersected at a point of maturity that allowed a cohesive, cross-medium user experience to be delivered to a global mobile audience for a significant live sporting event.

We combined a data-rich mobile experience that directly complemented live broadcast television coverage whilst addressing the challenge of delivering real-time commentary to mobile devices from the cloud. It was also a great example of a project where agile, experienced teams from multiple companies can come together to deliver something of excellent quality to a hard deadline. As with all the best projects, we also developed techniques that could be applied to later projects such as the London 2012 Olympics.

What tech were you involved with ten years ago?
Ten years ago I first saw an Anoto digital pen. What fascinated me about Anoto technology was how it could allow traditional pen and paper-based workflows to interact with digital systems in real-time – enabling software to then deliver data to back-end systems avoiding time intensive scanning or data entry.

This allows a win-win scenario to be created where minimal change is enforced on customer or patient facing users whilst validated, actionable data is delivered to the organisation in real time. I could see so much potential in the technology that I co-founded DevelopIQ to develop the middleware and mobile apps that would allow enterprises and public sector organisations to leverage this potential in their everyday workflows. We’ve since delivered many successful projects to the private and public sectors and became part of Anoto in April 2013.

Digital writing meats wearable tech

quill pen handwriting © Shutterstock sharpnerWhat tech do you expect to be using in ten years’ time?
I think digital writing and wearable computing are rapid growth areas for the future. At Anoto we already provide a natural digital interface for handwriting on both paper and screens, but I also see gesture-based interaction with mobile and desktop devices becoming more mainstream as we’ve already seen on some games consoles.

Mobile computing is becoming even more ubiquitous and embedded. As our digital lifestyle devices further converge, there will be an even greater focus on natural interaction with them, allowing self-expression and personality to be maintained and communicated in an increasingly digital world.

Steve-Jobs-BW-obit-squareWho’s your tech hero?
Steve Jobs. Not necessarily for who he was but what he tirelessly aspired to and achieved. He raised the bar in terms of mobile user experience by being ruthlessly driven in putting the end user first.

Whatever anyone says about Apple’s ecosystem or products, no-one can deny its impact on or creation of the mobile app and its ability to describe technology in a language that anyone understands – many technology companies are yet to learn this and persist in selling consumers meaningless technical specs.

Who’s your tech villain?
Fragmentation. Albeit abstract, this villain is the bane of every mobile product developer and predominantly the sole hindrance in app availability across mobile platforms. Different form factors, screen sizes, operating systems and development tools create friction between a product and its end users, requiring much higher effort and investment to deliver a consistent user experience regardless of end user platform choice.

Until this is solved, we’ll struggle to attain a truly consistent native user experience across mobile devices, thereby constraining what’s ultimately possible. Unfortunately some of the world’s most successful mobile device manufacturers aren’t interested in addressing the issue.

Mobile data changes everything

blackberrWhat’s your favourite technology ever made? Which do you use most?
BlackBerry’s transformation of mobile email from a previously slow and painful experience to an instant and efficient, always-on communications medium transformed mobile communication and productivity. Never before had road warriors felt so connected to their organisations and customers. New expectations in the velocity of internet communication were born.

What is your budget outlook going forward? Flat? Growing?
Growing. We’re currently seeing a surge in demand for our digital writing solutions in healthcare and are investing in new product development to ensure that our solutions offer our customers the most flexible and scalable solutions for the future.

Apart from your own, which company do you admire most and why?
37signals. Its Basecamp product is not only used by many of the world’s largest companies but it’s inspired a new generation of cloud applications where user experience, productivity and simplicity in business model have empowered SMBs with easy-to-use software that gets things done well with distributed teams. Never before has it been so easy to bootstrap a global start-up.

What’s the greatest challenge for an IT company/department today?
The consumerisation of IT and the adoption of BYOD has not only created higher expectations in terms of cross-platform mobile support and app user experience but has also moved the corporate firewall to the user’s pocket. Companies must now not only consider the security of data in transit but also at rest, as well as manage the proliferation of line-of-business applications demanded internally. Security is therefore more important than ever whilst being harder than ever to balance with the user experience demanded.

To Cloud or not to Cloud?
Definitely to Cloud, but it means so many different things to different stakeholders.

Rather than the remote service provision and software-as-a-service aspects of cloud computing, I instead like to focus on the flexibility and utility model that generally comes with a virtualised cloud infrastructure. It yields a much more tangible financial transformation to the organisation as well as an efficiency shift in terms of how we think about server-side compute resource.

Rather than having to plan up-front and make difficult estimations on large scale usage patterns, a well-architected cloud infrastructure can rapidly scale with demand, something that was impossible with traditional server architectures.

What did you want to be when you were a child?
A traditional architect – which is ironic given my current role! It nonetheless reflects my overriding ambition on any project or product to achieve the optimum, most elegant solution to solve any given problem. In the modern software world we have a myriad of architectural patterns, different shapes and sizes of client device and a globally connected user base, but it’s how we design a solution with these digital bricks and mortar that ultimately determines the security, flexibility and scalability of a software solution.

Well, that was interesting.  Now try our 3D printing quiz!