Enterprise app stores still need some work

While vendors of all sizes are hoping to ape the iTunes model, nobody has completed the picture for enterprises

Sparked by the jaw-dropping success of Apple's iTunes store, an array of enterprise software vendors are getting into the "app store" act.

Some, such as Salesforce.com, have been at it for years. More recent entries come from players such as cloud infrastructure provider 3Tera and Sun Microsystems, which has revealed the company plans to open a large-scale Java application store.

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While this trend is a good example of the consumer world influencing IT for the better, the model remains immature, observers say.

For example, a true enterprise marketplace would also help users easily find and choose an appropriate service provider, according to Redmonk analyst Stephen O'Grady.

"It's not like if I download Skype for my iPhone, I can't configure it [easily]," but that is hardly the case with enterprise software, O'Grady said in an interview.

There are Web sites catering to software specialists for hire, such as Elance, but they are "completely divorced from application libraries, which is to me, silly," O'Grady said.

Large enterprises may already have agreements in place with systems integrators, and therefore, a services marketplace might not be as useful to them, he added.

But those companies may still require help finding staff for implementing more obscure technologies, and the marketplace could be a boon for SMBs that aren't contracted to a systems integrator, O'Grady said.

In the case of Salesforce.com's AppExchange, this may be less of an issue, since many of the available applications are built natively on the company's development platform, alleviating integration chores.

But other observers say such vendor-centric marketplaces don't let the app-store concept reach its full potential.

"For a big enterprise, what you need is something that can hold all apps of all flavors," said Bob Gourley, former chief technology officer of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency and founder of the Manassas, Virginia, consultancy Crucial Point LLC.

But Gourley believes such broader-based projects will spring up internally, versus a public-facing, eBay-like commercial effort that embraces a wide array of vendors and developers.

Large enterprises with decentralized IT departments may set up what are essentially internal app stores, such as Forge.mil, a system used by a number of U.S. Armed Forces divisions to share and develop open source and Department of Defense "community source" software, in Gourley's view.

Meanwhile, other observers have proposed ways that various commercial app stores could work harmoniously, albeit more to the benefit of vendors.

"I certainly wouldn't expect it from Apple as they're currently the market leader, but all these 'me too' players should consider consolidating resources for one API set that could be shared and collaboratively built upon," IBM employee Michael Dolan said in a recent postto his personal blog.

"There's no reason this couldn't be possible and successful. We need strong competition in this space -- not just weak, feeble, short term 'tries' at building a competing store to Apple," he said.

Meanwhile, others aren't convinced that enterprise application stores are good for selling much beyond "building block" types of software, such as connectors to another application or a Web interface for an existing ERP system.

"I'm not sure that there is much of a monetization model here yet from a software perspective," said Forrester Research analyst Jeffrey Hammond via e-mail. "I can't imagine a dev shop paying more than a hundred dollars for a download over this channel, but if you were to use it as a seeding channel for a professional product or for an [open source] product that you sell support for, that could make things much more interesting."

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