Lost in the clamor of discussion around insurance companies' mobile development is the work that must be put into adapting back-end systems -- some of which weren't designed with mobile connectivity in mind -- to feed the mobile beast.
When Kemper Direct (Chicago; $47 million in earned premium, Q1 2012) decided to build a mobile app in 2010, VP and CIO John Elcock assigned his team to build linkages from the company's policy administration system that it could use to put out the information its customers wanted to access through the increasingly popular channel.
"It really depends on what functionality you will have available on the mobile app and how deep you want to get into the policy side [that] will determine how much linkage you need," Elcock tells Insurance & Technology. "If you want to show what cars are insured, what are their limits and deductibles, and ID card info, for example, all that information resides back on the policy administration system."
It wasn't always smooth sailing. Kemper wasn't able to devote a team solely to building the connectivity required, and it had to bring in Apple equipment to test app functionality that wasn't previously part of its IT environment. But a major breakthrough occurred when the company discovered that its policy administration system provider, Honolulu, Hawaii-based Decision Research Corporation (DRC), was simultaneously working on building generic versions of the connections on which Elcock and his team were working. By 2011, the app had been released.
"They were in the process of building more a generic app that could be used by their customers or even customers of other policy administration systems," Elcock says. "They were going to write their services from the mobile side that would make a certain amount of calls to the policy system. To integrate with another system you'd have to tinker with the XML."
Addressing Smartphone Limitations
One aspect of policy administration systems that can't be overlooked is their ability to take on much of the processing of functionality consumers expect. Because of the storage and processing limitations of smartphones, it's easier on everyone if requests are processed at the "home base," Elcock says.
"You wouldn't want to send as much information to the phone because of the real estate you have to work with," he explains. "The trick is figuring out what's the critical information you need from the services you're building. To have your number crunching on the phone burns the battery. Then your application becomes unattractive."
Elcock sees mobile preparedness increasingly becoming a vital component of policy administration systems. Much in the same way that insurance consumers expect their insurance carriers to have mobile functionality available to them, so also do insurance companies expect their software vendors to be prepared to handle the important mobile channel.
"This has become table stakes to get into the game -- you're going to expect that the company has a mobile app," according to Elcock. "If I were making a decision on a new policy system and one was mobile-ready while the other wasn't, all thingsbeing equal, I would have to give that extra points."
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But it's unlikely that Elcock will find himself in that position due to concerns over mobile readiness. DRC has been a good partner in developing Kemper's mobile functionality, he says, and he recommends all insurers look to their PAS vendors as potential resources for aid in entering the channel.
"If you reach back and they have the app and integration but it's going to cost you an arm and a leg, maybe you want to think about doing it yourself, but if not, why reinvent the wheel?" he asks. "If the PAS vendor has a mobile app or has created the interfaces for the mobile app, that would be the first place you would start."
And even though smartphone proliferation wasn't nearly at the level it is now when Kemper first deployed DRC's software, now that it's a fact of life the system has proved flexible enough to adapt to the times.
"Once you have that integration back to the PAS, then you have basically cracked a nut," he says. "We feel that we can do whatever we want to do back to our PAS today because we know how to communicate back to the system."
Mobile App Development Avenues
When building the front-end of Kemper Direct's mobile app, VP and CIO John Elcock and his team considered a number of different development avenues. He evaluated four of them in a session at the recent IASA conference in San Diego:
Native Code Development: This provides the best user experience, but requires a lot of follow-up from the insurer to stay current with new versions and capabilities, Elcock said. "People go and buy an iPhone or an Android phone for the user experience, because that's what people rave about. You don't want to compromise that, and each one of those devices provides toolkits for development. But they're not portable to other platforms," he observed.
Cross-Platform Tools: Elcock praised these platforms for their flexibility, but cautioned that using one could paint carriers into a corner: "If you have a small IT budget, this might be a solution that's worth considering at this time. They've gotten better since we looked at them a couple years ago. The downside is they're very sticky. You build your app using their code base, and then you're stuck."
Mobile Web: Simply creating a device-agnostic, robust mobile web site might be enough, but fully precludes the ability to work offline, Elcock related: "The downside is if you're not connected to a network, you've got no app. There's also not a lot of real estate to work with and they're not able to utilize many of the native device elements like GPS and the camera. The distinction between the mobile applications and the native applications are becoming blurry as the browsers gain access to those things."
HTML5: Elcock said that while this has been an option for a while, it's only recently beginning to hit its stride: "It's much further along than when we looked at it a couple years ago. It's appealing for its cross-platform support for things like drawing, audio or video without using Silverlight or Flash, and drag-and-drop, in a browser."
Nathan Golia is senior editor of Insurance & Technology. He joined the publication in 2010 as associate editor and covers all aspects of the nexus between insurance and information technology, including mobility, distribution, core systems, customer interaction, and risk ... View Full Bio