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A New Way to Empower Mobile Workers

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

All told, spending on mobile apps, developed either in-house or by third-party programmers, is expected to soar, from $1.8 billion last year to $6.9 billion by 2015 in North America alone, according to Frost & Sullivan, a research and consulting firm.

Faster and Cheaper

That boom is helping workers do far more with handheld devices than simply access e-mail and calendar functions. Typically, companies enter the apps world by serving up simple apps, such as employee directories, meeting-room reservation systems, and expense-reporting apps. But any kind of enterprise software could migrate to the apps world.

Kraft Foods, for instance, launched a set of enterprise apps for supply-chain management and procurement. Meanwhile, IBM is building an enormous mobile-apps store it has dubbed WhirlWind, which already offers 400 apps and serves more than 26,000 employees. Bill Bodin, IBM’s CTO of mobility, says that the company has embraced a crowdsourcing approach, giving employees the ability to submit, rate, and comment on the apps, which has stepped up the pace of development. “Development cycles now can be weeks or days,” Bodin says.

The quickening pace and plunging costs are driving acceptance. At first, adapting enterprise software for mobile devices was painstaking and expensive, due to the lack of development tools, says Genentech’s O’Connor. Three years ago, when Genentech began its mobile-apps effort, it confronted the same economics as traditional IT projects, meaning the software could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and take 12 to 18 months to develop.

But with better tools from Apple, Google, Microsoft, and a handful of third-party companies, those economics are changing dramatically. At Genentech, an application developed two years ago that lets salespeople use their iPhones to log data from doctor’s visits took just five months to develop and cost about $100,000. More recently, an app for booking conference rooms that is integrated with Google Calendar took just six weeks and cost $13,000.

What helps drive down costs is that apps represent the antithesis of “bloatware.” As compared with traditional corporate software, which can incorporate dozens of features that are barely used, “the best apps do one thing really well,” says Cimarron Buser, vice president of products and marketing for Apperian, a developer of mobile apps that has worked with Genentech. For instance, Genentech’s drug discovery app, called Small Molecule Data Integration, took just two months to develop, at a cost of about $40,000, says Daniel McCall, the company’s mobile-apps project manager.

The app is compelling, he says, because discovering new drugs is such a serendipitous process. “You could be standing in line at a movie and think, ‘I wonder if G2389 has a better absorption rate than G2384?’” Genentech scientists can now use their iPhones to check it out — by rendering new combinations in visual form on their screens. The effort represented a milestone for the company, which is feeling increasingly comfortable with the idea of “app-izing” what McCall describes as “crown-jewel business processes that are integral to the organization.”

For enterprises that are embracing the app-store concept, another primary driver is control, says Michele Pelino, a principal analyst with Forrester Research. Since employees have generally selected their own mobile devices and apps, mobility has thus far represented a shift of power away from the IT organization. Having your own app store can prevent employees “from going around the back of the IT organization,” says Pelino.

To do it right, enterprises need to create an infrastructure to update their apps, manage security, authenticate users — all while keeping the storefront neat and clean. For big companies, says Apperian’s Buser, “it’s like creating your own version of iTunes.” For smaller companies, it’s like a digital version of the lobby magazine rack.

Evan I. Schwartz is a freelance tech writer and former editor at Businessweek and Technology Review.

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