Attack of the Apps

Primed by their experiences as consumers, workers yearn for a greater diversity of mobile business apps – and they're getting it.
David McCannNovember 1, 2010

The success of tablet computers (and smart phones before them) has been driven by the fact that people increasingly prefer that information and communications capabilities be available at the touch of a button rather than at the end of a Web search.

Having been told endlessly that “there’s an app for that,” people now expect that to be true for work-related applications as well, particularly when they are away from their desktop computers.

There are already quite a few business-oriented apps available, enabling everything from moving files back and forth among far-flung computers to fast and easy expense reporting. The boom in apps isn’t just a matter of convenience, but a change in the very nature of corporate IT. After all, not only are these apps functional and inexpensive (or even free), but users don’t need help from tech support to download, learn, or delete them.

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Best of all, apps allow users to customize their mobile devices and turn them into pocket-sized IT departments that serve their individual needs. “All iPhones are made by Apple, yet my iPhone is different from everyone else’s because of the combination of apps I’ve selected,” says futurist Burrus. “That is a giant, very powerful shift.”

The real opportunity for companies, however, isn’t just about exploiting commercially available apps but about creating “enterprise apps” that are specific to their businesses, processes, and cultures.

Such apps already exist for purchasing, logistics, supply-chain management, sales, and many other business activities. The big, mostly future payoff is that companies may have libraries of dozens or hundreds of enterprise apps that could be combined in thousands of ways to create all sorts of customized systems. “Companies are going to start figuring that out soon,” says Michael Hugos, principal at the Center for Systems Innovation.

One major roadblock, however, is that while apps may rely on the Web, they aren’t nearly as open as the Web. How companies will harness the full power of these platform-dependent, proprietary nuggets of functionality is very much an open question.

Nonetheless, employees will continue to make greater use of ever-smarter mobile devices, and that means greater use of apps. “The apps create the value, allowing you to improve, expand, and be more productive and efficient,” says Forrester Research analyst Michele Pelino. “The device becomes not just nice to have and fun to use, but a critical requirement.”

David McCann is senior editor for technology at CFO.