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A New Way to Empower Mobile Workers

Corporate app stores bring a popular software distribution model to gadget-loving employees.

The most sophisticated piece of software at many biotech firms is an application that helps scientists create new drugs and treatments. Since this kind of “drug discovery” program models complex chemical structures with 3-D graphics, it can take more than a year to develop internally, or, if purchased from a vendor, can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In short, drug discovery would seem to be one technology-intensive chore for which the rallying cry “there’s an app for that” does not apply. And yet, there is. And it’s free. But even if you have the latest smart phone or tablet, you can’t download this mobile-friendly software application. That’s because it is available only at the Genentech App Store, as one of 30 apps offered to employees of the South San Francisco–based company, a division of the Roche Group.

While Genentech was one of the first enterprises to launch its own app store, other companies in other industries are following its lead. Forrester Research estimates that 10% of enterprises will have their own app stores up and running by the end of this year.

It’s all part of the consumerization of the enterprise — the movement among employees to rely on their personal smart phones and tablets instead of their company’s standard-issue laptops and desktops. “Everyone is carrying their devices around all the time,” says Chris O’Connor, Genentech’s associate IT director. And they want software optimized for such gear.

This shift to a more mobile mind-set poses a major challenge to companies that are wed to the way that proprietary software has been designed, deployed, and financed in the past. “A lot of IT organizations are old-school, with traditional software-development cycles,” says Sam Liu, vice president of marketing for Partnerpedia, a company that helps mobile-device makers attract software developers. “This [apps model] is much faster, and is done in smaller chunks.”

As a result, enterprise app stores promise to disrupt the wider world of software. After all, downloading an app for a smart phone or tablet is quick and easy. That helps explain why Google’s Android Market has already served up more than 3 billion app downloads, and why Apple’s App Store on iTunes has blown past the 10 billion mark.

But these and other app stores are directed at consumers, and businesses that want to create proprietary apps for their employees and partners have been shut out from distributing and managing software this way. Apple’s guidelines, for instance, don’t allow apps that aren’t “of general interest,” for fear of too much clutter in searches.

Apple is, however, addressing the needs of business users. Last year it rolled out its iOS Developer Enterprise Program, enabling leading-edge companies to create their own private app stores that are separate from iTunes but have a similar look and feel. At first, Apple limited the program to organizations with more than 500 employees, but in January it opened it to any organization that pays the $299 annual fee. Meanwhile, Google and Microsoft are rolling out similar enterprise app tools for their mobile-computing platforms.

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