Mobile Business Apps Flourish at IBM, Google

As more companies let smartphones into the workplace, demand is surging for downloadable apps that let employees work on the go

IBM engineer William Bodin needed a way to communicate easily with a team of developers halfway around the world. So he turned to an application, created by colleagues, that could be downloaded to his smartphone and that let him collaborate securely with co-workers in Vietnam—even when he was sitting rink-side at his son's hockey practice.

Bodin, IBM's mobile chief technology officer, has since created an online storefront that gives employees across IBM (IBM) access to similar downloadable apps. The store is called Whirlwind, and in the six weeks since it opened, it has been used by more than 11,000 employees. "People love the concept," Bodin says.

Staff at IBM headquarters in Armonk, N.Y., use the programs for everything from scheduling conference rooms to approving purchase orders, from accessing marketing materials to logging onto the internal social network, Bluepages. They can also rate apps according to their usefulness. Previously, employees couldn't carry out many of these tasks unless they were logged onto a desktop PC or a network-linked laptop. With apps, whether they're created within IBM or by outside programmers, workers can handle all these jobs from a handheld device.

Corporate Evolution

The rising popularity of Whirldwind and the apps it brings together in a single storefront reflects a shift under way across industries. By 2015, about half of the devices on corporate networks will be mobile, according to an Oct. 14 report from Forrester Research (FORR). Sales of Internet-enabled mobile devices, such as smartphones, tablets, and e-readers, have already surpassed those of Internet-enabled laptops, notebooks, and desktop computers, says Andrew Jaquith, a Forrester senior analyst.

As companies spend more money developing mobile apps or buying them from third-party programmers, the North American market for mobile office applications may surge to $6.85 billion in 2015, from $1.76 billion in 2010, according to analysis by Frost & Sullivan, a research and consulting firm.

Google (GOOG) also has created an internal mobile app store. Employees go there to get software for such tasks as expense reporting or finding free conference rooms. "I would not call them rocket science apps, but they're very practical, pragmatic apps that Googlers need throughout the day," says Dave Girourard, president of Google Enterprise. The company also uses the store to test some apps before they're released to the public, through a site that showcases apps for the Android operating system. "It's actually a model we want to deliver to companies around the world so they can have their own app store for Android apps," Girourard says.

Not Just BlackBerrys

App use is surging in the workplace as more companies, including Kraft Foods (KFT) and SAP's (SAP:GR) Sybase business, become comfortable letting employees use smartphones for work. "The first hurdle was to allow these devices to connect securely to the enterprise," says Jaquith at Forrester. It's not just Research In Motion's (RIMM) BlackBerry anymore, either. In October, Apple (AAPL) said the iPhone is being deployed or tested by 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies and the iPad is being used or tested by 65 percent of Fortune 100 companies. Users of the iPhone and iPad have access to more than 280,000 apps in Apple's App Store.

Apple (AAPL) has also taken steps to make it easier to create iPhone and iPad apps for employees. Its iOS enterprise developer program gives programmers access to resources for $299 a year that will help them develop proprietary, in-house applications.

Smaller companies, including Apperian, Mobile Iron, JackBe and Ondeego, specialize in software or services to help companies open mobile app stores. About 50 companies have signed up for an Apperian program called EASE, for enterprise application services environment, and they're working on as few as two to as many as 20 apps apiece, says Cimarron Buser, vice-president for marketing at Apperian.

IT Headaches

Useful as workplace apps may be, they also pose challenges for company information technology staffs. In the past, IT departments controlled worker mobile devices, which were mostly limited to BlackBerrys. Now they need to accommodate a broader range of mobile operating systems, including Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows 7, sold by a range of wireless network operators. "There's not a single operator that can handle all the devices," says Paul Nerger, vice-president for marketing at Ondeego. "What makes a company think they can do it?" Ondeego sells a product called Appcentral that lets companies distribute apps to employees and another product called Appguard that lets the IT manager secure the application. If an employee leaves the company, the IT manager can wipe the corporate apps on that device, one by one. PepsiCo is an Ondeego customer.

IBM and Google take different approaches to corporate policies for using mobile devices. IBM now only lets BlackBerry apps on Whirlwind, though it's testing other mobile devices, including iPhones and Android handsets, and engineers are writing apps for iPhone and Android devices. The apps will probably be added to Whirlwind once the company approves other devices, Bodin says. Google, on the other hand, lets employees pick from an array of smartphones, says Google's Girourard. Most employees work outside the corporate network, and systems that house secret proprietary information, such as source code, are strictly guarded.

Another way IBM encourages use of Whirlwind is by letting employees write their own apps and upload them to the store. The process is so easy, Bodin says, that he was able to add an app to Whirlwind in October while he was waiting for a doctor's appointment to begin.

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