There's a new type of app in town, and it's exclusive to employees. Custom apps for email, social media, admin and asset management are all available to the biggest of companies. In other words, the days of using clunky interfaces for email and client communication are numbered. As the cost of app development decreases, a basic, bespoke company app is becoming an essential tool for work. Should your company be using one? Read on to find out. (Read more about the movement that made this shift possible in BYOT: What It Means for IT.)
When Apps Become Private
App culture on iOS and Android platforms is growing at an amazing rate. As of 2012, there are hundreds of thousands of apps available on both Android platforms and iOS. There are also 365 million iOS devices in the world, half of which flew off the shelves in 2011. Smartphone and tablet sales are reaching new highs, and not just because people like to play with them (which they do); part of that growth is due to businesses adopting tablets over laptops for key office functions. And as the cost of app development has continued to decrease, a new market in tailored, company-branded apps for internal use has emerged. Now, we see restaurant owners using menu apps, and taxi drivers embracing online booking apps. And 2012 appears to be the year when third-party apps grow into bespoke, individual apps based on companies' individual needs.
Matt Suggs is VP of sales for Los Angeles-based app developer Mediafly, an agency that deals with internal app development for Fortune 1000 clients.
"Our clients are using tablets like the iPad in the field to provide more compelling engagement with their customers," Suggs said. "The use of tablets, especially in the 1 to 1 scenarios seen in industries like medical devices and financial services, has been a major driver for our business."
"As tablet software catches up, particularly in the area of content creation, we could even see tablets replacing PCs for certain user profiles" says Suggs.
Benefits and Accessibility
But a move toward mobile and the ability to develop work-centric apps doesn't just benefit companies - it benefits employees too.
For example, Mediafly also develops apps that bring the workplace into users' living rooms and onto their TVs. Partnering with Roku, makers of a small TV streaming product designed to support Netflix in consumer homes, the product enables secure streaming of company video and data, along with hassle-free video conferencing. The device is the size of a cigarette packet, and while there are others like it on the market, it's an exciting glimpse into how new apps may soon spread beyond smartphones and tablets, and allow users to access a work app through a smart TV. (Forget BYOD, this would allow workers to stay on the couch!)
Bill Predmore is founder of POP, an apps agency based in Seattle. When quizzed about the education process for workers using apps, he sees it as a key shift in the way we work.
"We consider this less of a technology issue and more of a change management challenge," Predmore said. "Nevertheless, it is a factor that must be considered in advance when embarking on the creation of new apps for the enterprise."
Cost and Development
According to a column by Seth Porges on Mashable, creating an app will cost a small company up to $20,000 - if they want something that delivers a decent user interface, that is. An agency will also charge more based on the company's design demands, the countries in which it will be used and, crucially, the services it plugs into.
If a mobile and secure company email app uses Outlook, then a bridge will need to be made between the app and Microsoft. That'll cost you. Want dedicated cloud hosting and secure remote backup of your company emails and documents? Expect to pay more. Security is another big-ticket issue for clients.
"We get lots of questions around security" says Suggs. "Our large corporate clients are particularly concerned about their sensitive content getting out into the wild as a result of loss or theft of the device, and we've layered in features to prevent that from happening."
Companies are also keen to keep their apps up to date, Suggs says.
"There is a great deal of curiosity around the next great device, and we provide our clients with frequent updates around the latest devices and industry announcements. Because of the frequent release of new devices and changes in standards, they rely on us heavily to keep them up to date market developments," Suggs said.
A Whole New World
The bigger question around the cost of apps is that when a company owns a dedicated app, it no longer needs to buy versions for thousands of employees. Design a cloud-based, Office-style suite and ditch the corporate subscription to Microsoft. The benefits are clear: The company owns the software because they paid to make it and decide when to make the upgrade. Naturally, the costs are bigger than making an app for screening company videos or a menu ordering system for a restaurant, but the future isn’t necessarily based around the traditional office and work software you use every day. We asked Suggs what he thought about a future without our familiar office software and a corporate world of company communications based solely around apps.
"It is possible, but the packaged enterprise software companies have invested heavily in deep integration to the desktop software like the OS, Office and Outlook. A major hurdle to overcome is the current working generations' reliance on these desktop applications for their productivity," Suggs said.
Predmore says we're moving away from an OS-centric model to an "ecosystem-centric model."
"A great OS will still lie at the heart of any ecosystem, but the best ecosystems will include a huge install base, a range of world-class devices, strong developer tools, access to key services and a highly-evolved storefront that allows brands to easily monetize their efforts," Pedmore said.
"We believe we’re still in the very early stages of the "post-PC" world, so there is a ton of innovation still to come."
Company Apps: The Next Frontier
It's often been said that apps changed the world. They did. But that change has come more slowly at the corporate level. Now, companies are using - and increasingly, building - apps, helping them break into a more mobile world. It's also a world where people and companies can have things their own way, right down to the software they use to build those things. So should you be using a bespoke app? Looks like the question is really how soon you should start.