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Mobile Apps Suit Up for Work


Companies are creating in-house app stores for their employees

IBM (IBM) engineer William Bodin needed a way to communicate securely 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. It let him collaborate with teammates in Vietnam while he was sitting rink-side at his son's hockey practice.

Bodin, IBM's chief technology officer for mobile computing, has since created an online storefront that gives employees across the company access to software that can help them get their work done. The store, called Whirlwind, has been used by more than 11,000 IBMers in the six weeks it's been open for business. There are apps for everything from scheduling conference rooms to approving purchasing orders to accessing IBM's internal social network. Previously, employees couldn't do most of this unless they were logged onto a desktop PC or a network-linked laptop. Now they can do it all from a smartphone or other mobile device. Says Bodin: "People love the concept."

As companies become comfortable letting employees conduct business by smartphone, they are increasingly turning to enterprise applications that can run on mobile devices. An Oct. 14 report from Forrester Research (FORR) predicts that by 2015 about half of all devices on U.S. corporate networks will be mobile. The shift away from PCs will power an explosion in the North American market for office apps, which is set to climb to $6.85 billion by 2015, from $1.76 billion in 2010, according to forecasts from Frost & Sullivan, a research and consulting firm.

Google (GOOG) also has an in-house app store. Employees can download software to do their expenses or book a conference room on the run. "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's enterprise group. The company also uses the store to internally test apps built to run on its Android operating system before they're released to the public. "It's actually a model we want to deliver to companies around the world so that they can have their own store for Android apps," says Girourard.

Apple (AAPL) has made it easier to build iPhone and iPad apps for use in the workplace. For a fee of $299 a year, its iOS enterprise developer program gives programmers access to resources that will help them develop proprietary, in-house applications.

Useful as office apps may be, they also can create headaches for information technology departments. While BlackBerrys were once standard issue at many companies, IT staff must now support a broader range of handsets—and operating systems. "There's not a single [mobile phone] operator that can handle all the devices," says Paul Nerger, vice-president for marketing at Ondeego, a Berkeley (Calif.)-based firm that helps companies build and manage in-house app stores. "What makes a company think they can do it?" Ondeego markets a product called AppCentral that lets companies distribute apps to employees and another product called AppGuard that allows the IT manager to secure the application. If an employee leaves the company, the corporate apps can be wiped off a device, one by one.

To keep things simple, IBM only allows BlackBerry apps on Whirlwind for now, though its engineers are writing apps for iPhone and Android devices. Those will probably wind up in the store once the company approves the use of other devices to connect to its corporate networks. The company also is letting employees write their own apps and upload them to the store. The process is so easy, Bodin says, that he was able to do just that while killing some time in the waiting room at his doctor's office last month.

The bottom line: IBM, Google, and others are creating internal storefronts loaded with apps that ease tasks such as expense reporting .

King is a writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in San Francisco.

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