The iPad may be five years old, but there remains a surprising dearth of iPad apps for serious business use. We finally have a good Office for iPad (and iPhone), with plenty of tools available for individual needs, from network troubleshooting to video editing. But there's still not much for what IT organizations call enterprise apps: the core apps people use for their specific job, whether an insurance adjuster or a copier-repair field technician.
When IBM and Apple announced last fall an alliance to create such apps for iPads, iPhones, and iPod Touches, it looked like a much-needed sea change in enterprise mobile strategy was in the offing, and businesses would finally take mobile apps seriously. Now I'm not so sure.
Of course, some companies have already pioneered the use of enterprise apps on iOS devices. InfoWorld has profiled such innovators, including Coca-Cola Enterprises. But they remain the exception.
That's why the IBM-Apple alliance looked so interesting. The IBM moniker might sweep aside the often irrational anti-Apple sentiments in many organizations. IBM certainly is a good company to talk to about enabling digital workflows on computers, so why not extend that expertise to mobile?
As part of its new MobileFirst business, IBM has already built 10 iOS enterprise apps, with more to come. But these apps are not the apps you find in the App Store. Instead, they're custom-developed software for specific clients. In other words, they're at heart no different than traditional enterprise apps.
Sure, they use at least one feature specific to Apple's mobile devices, such as GPS location or the microphone. Some of those are obvious and not that different from what many laptops can do, but other features take advantage of capabilities not available to laptops. For example, some apps will blank the screen or log out if you shake the iPad or iPhone, so confidential data is immediately hidden if someone comes up behind you unexpectedly. In another case, the shake gesture is used to summon help.
That mobile-specific requirement will help force IBM clients to think of mobile-native features to exploit, not merely try to rework existing Windows or Web apps into an iPad's or iPhone's screen size. That's a good thing.
I got to see several IBM's Apple-device apps in action, and they really are compelling. They clearly show that the iPad or iPhone can be a powerful computing tool in its own right, especially for workers not tied to a desk. IBM has done a great job creating apps that take advantage of iOS's user interface and functionality, as well as the Apple hardware. These are not Windows or Web apps roughly ported to iOS, but the real deal.
But they remain custom apps. Kathryn White, IBM's VP of sales for IBM's Apple apps, tells me that roughly 70 percent of the functionality is the same for similar clients, and the rest is customized to the client's specific needs, such as its unique value proposition and workflows.
There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that -- it's exactly how ERP, CRM, and all the other traditional enterprise apps are done.
I also asked White about how deeply a business must be tied to IBM to use the IBM-created Apple apps. White said that there was no dependency on IBM's back-end servers or hardware, but she also remarked, "Though of course we have a lot of experience in back ends with our own services." Translation: We'll steer you to extended involvement with IBM products and servers.
White also mentioned the possibilities of using analytics technologies in mobile apps, especially in field forces, citing Watson specifically. That of course is IBM's big push right now: to find a way to sell its analytics and machine-learning technologies far and wide.
Such steering to its own technology is standard practice for a vendor-owned consultancy. If you go to the Microsoft-Accenture joint venture Avanade, for example, the proposed solutions will be heavily focused on those that use Microsoft tools. Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, and so on all do the same for their offerings.
White mentioned that IBM is building a catalog of APIs for its Apple-device apps, which suggested a greater degree of interoperability with other systems. But when I pressed her, she admitted, "The initial implementation is that the API design is unique for each app. ... IBM would likely be doing the implementation. ... The APIs are not publicly available." That's not how most enterprise developers think of APIs. IBM's APIs are really for IBM's benefit, not yours.
Recently, Apple and IBM announced that IBM would develop more "horizontal" apps as part of an expanded relationship. When I asked White what that meant, her answer made it clear that the result would be more of the same. Although there are processes like supply chain and sales that are common across industries, individual industry practices differ enough where the same app wouldn't work across them, she said. IBM will certainly reuse "horizontal" technology and processes across its custom apps, but the apps themselves won't be horizontal.
All of this means that the IBM-Apple alliance's practical reach is limited to large customers that can afford the expensive custom development and ongoing maintenance from IBM Global Services. White says many use cases justify the investment, and I'm sure it's true.
But I was hoping the IBM-Apple alliance might also create apps that serve the midsize company, in the way that Salesforce.com does in the cloud world. That means apps that are configurable to handle the core needs, not semi-custom one-off versions. There are way more midsize companies than large ones, and if they could join the mobile revolution beyond email and Office, that'd really move the needle.
IBM is doing what IBM always does, and I don't fault it. Enterprises that can afford IBM's services and are already aligned to IBM's technology portfolio will likely see real benefit from its custom apps for Apple devices.
But I wish that Apple or someone would do more to make mobile business apps accessible broadly, not only to big companies with eight-figure IT budgets. The Apple-IBM deal makes a lot of sense for the largest companies and will help bring many into the modern era.
Apple should find a similar partnership to serve the midsize companies and more broadly enable the mobile revolution in business.