Open for business: It's the year of the corporate app store

As smartphone and tablet usage skyrockets, IT seeks a way to distribute its own apps

With more employees using smartphones and tablets for business, enterprises are setting up their own app stores for application distribution, leveraging a consumer model for mobile application access that is tuned to the workplace. Instead of saddling already overburdened IT personnel with getting applications to individual devices, these app stores provide a central distribution mechanism for employees to download applications themselves.

App store technologies from companies such as AppCentral, App47, and Apperian mimic popular consumer app stores such as Google Play (formerly the Android Market) and Apple's App Store but provide access to applications needed in the workplace. Organizations control access to the stores, which can be cloud-based. Users then access the stores directly from their devices, whether corporate-issued or self-purchased, and view a palette of applications, which can either be developed by third parties or in-house.

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"This whole app store concept is a way to seamlessly deploy these mobile apps to users," says Vizay Kotikalapudi, senior manager for endpoint management and mobility at Symantec, which in a recent survey of IT pros at 6,275 organizations found that 66 percent of respondents were considering development of a corporate app store. That's a huge shift from 2011, says App47 CEO Chris Schroeder: "The enterprise was not focused at all around mobile apps or enterprise app stores" in 2011, but "in 2012, we're seeing the complete opposite."

No such thing as a disk image for mobile devices

Getting applications to mobile devices differs from performing the same task for larger systems. "If you think about desktops and laptops, enterprise IT for years has largely relied on a number of tools, perhaps most prominently the corporate disk image" to get applications installed, says John Dasher, vice president of products and marketing at AppCentral. "There really isn't a corporate disk image for a mobile device."

This is where the enterprise app store comes into play, he says. Companies developing their own custom applications, for example, do not want to make their intellectual property available in a commercial app store, so they set up their own.

App stores also enable employee access from wherever they might be. ThinkBasis, which sells sales applications to plastic surgeons, is using the App47 application store service because it lets employees access applications from different locations. "We needed something that allows us to give [sales staff] the tools they need" for remote access, says Nick Dumitru, ThinkBasis's president.

The corporate app store movement is in its early days, says Dasher, estimating less than 10 percent of enterprises now have them. Apple's iOS and Google's Android are the dominant choices.

GE gets an early app store start

General Electric launched its own corporate app store for employees in 2009, calling it GE AppCentral, although it is not connected to the vendor of the same name. Employees have downloaded applications more than 350,000 times, including productivity and service-oriented software. Users can access the store on their mobile phone or via the Web and have an application emailed to their smartphone, says Dayan Anandappa, CIO for digital media at GE. Mobilization is strategic to GE, he says, which is why it was an early adopter of the corporate app store. Users download applications based on specific access rights.

Another issue is recognizing the user interface has to be flexible. "When you're designing this, you have to be cognizant of the fact that people are going to be accessing through their mobile device with various form factors," Anandappa says. Thus, the right interfaces need to be provided, he says.

App store cloud services emerging

App47 launched its cloud-based service a year ago. The company also has an on-premise solution, geared mostly toward the federal government, which is not yet comfortable with using the cloud, CEO Schroeder says.

Likewise, AppCentral offers both SaaS and on-premise solutions. But similar to App47's experience, 85 to 90 percent of customers opt for the cloud version. "More and more companies are just figuring out the convenience and instant availability of cloud solutions just make a lot of sense," says products VP Dasher.

BYOD a driving force, but not required

The BYOD (bring your own device) phenomenon, in which employees want to use the device of their choosing for both personal and business use, is definitely played a role in the emergence of corporate app stores.

Chris Hazelton, an analyst at 451 Research, says that corporate app stores are "basically another enabler of BYOD," where applications and data become more critical as opposed to specific devices, he says.

Of course, you don't have to support BYOD to benefit from using a corporate app store. Case in point: GE, which supports only GE-provided devices, including mainly iOS and RIM's BlackBerry, as well as some Android and Windows Mobile devices. The company is looking at BYOD options, digital media CIO Anandappa notes.

It is clear, though, that regardless of whether a company is issuing its own devices or letting users choose, the trend of companies setting up their own mobile app stores is one that is likely to skyrocket in growth. Enterprise IT has quickly moved to the world of smartphones and tablets, and app stores are going to serve as a strategic management tool.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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