Why iPad apps can't replace your desktop software -- yet

It's as facile to say iPads can replace PCs as it is to say they can't -- the story of mobile apps isn't black-and-white

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Enterprise app efforts aren't yet serious because IT isn't ready
If you look at flood of reports issued on mobile trends and the sessions at mobile-themed conferences, you'll hear lots of talk about how enterprises need to put mobile first and focus on developing apps to take advantage of all those smartphones and tablets flooding their workers. Well, they probably should, but most aren't.

Many companies' IT departments are still arguing that mobile is a risky fad that must be contained, since it's now clear it can't be completely blocked. These IT shops still have the delusion they can install a desktop virtualization client on all those mobile devices and force users to run data-center-delivered Windows apps on their tablet, so they won't get serious about true mobile apps, whether native or, more likely, client-accessed back end. Meanwhile, users find their own apps, usually tied to cloud services that let them move forward without IT.

But even those not stuck in a not-so-golden past are doing little with mobile apps. My informal survey of mobile app security firms showed little serious development by their clients, for example. Alan Murray, vice president of products at mobile app security vendor Apperian, for example, tells me that, for most companies, existing efforts focus on one of three areas:

  • Toy apps such as lunch-ordering apps designed for testing purposes and internal skill-building
  • Client apps to companies' highly customized sales-force automation environments
  • Expense reporting

My talks with analysts back up the notion of businesses not yet really being serious about developing mobile apps. That's not to say there aren't serious mobile efforts, Murray says. He cites sophisticated augmented-reality apps used by the oil and gas industry to help identify and assess failed components on offshore oil rigs, where the savings from preventing failures and quickly addressing those that occur more than pays for the high development costs for such apps, and where lightweight, portable devices such as iPads are much more suited than laptops. Kiosk sales apps are another example of where some companies have made real investments in tablet apps, he notes.

But for the most part, enterprises aren't really ready to embrace mobile technology in a meaningful way. Until they do, there won't be many serious enterprise mobile apps.

Why major developers fear to offer mobile apps
It's quite possible to deliver highly functional, easy-to-use apps for at least the iPad. Given the skyrocketing sales of tablets for both personal and business use, having iPad and perhaps Android versions of the desktop mainstays would seem to be a natural move.

But economically, delivering those mainstay apps is a very dangerous move. For example, QuickBooks Pro 2013 for Windows has a list price of $250, though it's often sold for $150. InDesign costs $700. But name an iPad app that costs anywhere close to those prices. You won't find one. Each iWork app costs $10, Quickoffice Pro costs $18, GoodReader costs $10. The costliest business apps on the iPad -- Omni Group's OmniGraffle and OmniPlan -- cost $50 each.

The economics of mobile apps don't work for an Adobe, Microsoft, or Quicken. It's not just the initial purchase's dramatically lower cost in mobile. Desktop software makers have long had a model where customers are expected to upgrade every few years -- whether they need to or not -- and thus put another $150 to $250 in the developer's bank account. For enterprise software, businesses pay an annual "maintenance" or "client access license" fee -- in truth, a subscription charge. That model is coming to the desktop. Microsoft now offers Office for $99 per year, and Adobe offers Creative Suite for $240 per year. The promise is that users always have the latest software, but we all know 1996's Office 97 had almost everything we need (hyperlinks were missing) and 2008's Adobe Creative Suite CS4 was the last version where a $100-plus upgrade fee was worth paying.

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