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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.

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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