Looking for ways to do business more efficiently? It turns out there's an app for that.
As the smartphone revolution expands into the workplace, growing demands for software programs that allow employees to work faster, smarter and from anywhere have created a new market for mobile applications designed specifically for business.
Once the domain of consumers interested in reading the news, playing games and connecting with friends, mobile apps are becoming one of the top technology priorities for business.
Industry analysts predict that mobile enterprise applications will be one of the biggest business trends in 2012 as organizations look for new ways to streamline operations and stay ahead of rivals. A 2010 report by consulting firm Frost & Sullivan predicted that by 2015, companies will be spending nearly $7-billion contracting out the development of mobile apps.
"It is starting to happen in a big way," said Mark Lowenstein, managing director of Mobile Ecosystem, a Massachusetts-based wireless consulting firm. "Companies are realizing that these devices can be used for a pretty strategic competitive advantage."
It's a shift driven largely by the increasing sophistication of tablets and smartphones, combined with a push from employees to equip their personal devices with apps that allow them to work on the go.
"Now with the growth of iPhone and with Android devices and so on, employees are saying, 'I use this extensively in my personal life. [I]don't want to carry two devices, I want to be able to use this for business as well as personal functions,'" Mr. Lowenstein said.
Mobile enterprise apps could change the way companies do business.
Instead of clunky laptops or stacks of paper, employees can use tablet computers in meetings to provide a visual snapshot of products or projections. Salespeople can access up-to-the-minute inventory data needed to make a sale. They can also instantly record transactions in the company's system as they happen, rather than waiting until the end of the week when they could forget vital information.
"When you think about business going forward, you're going to think about what you can do at your desk and what you can do online," said Maribel Lopez, principal analyst at Lopez Research, a mobile consulting firm based in San Francisco. "Basically, business is moving mobile and mobile is the business."
But adopting a mobile enterprise strategy comes with challenges, such as deciding what functions should be incorporated into an app, how to roll it out across the organization, and how to ensure security.
"There's a lot of challenges," Ms. Lopez said. "There's a lot of reasons this didn't happen before."
Underlying these issues is the question of whether businesses can ensure a return on their investment. That's why organizations must ask hard questions about which apps should be created and where they need to be in an organization, Ms. Lopez said.
In the sales department, for instance, apps could eliminate time-consuming phone calls or the need to carry often-outdated price books.
But employees who focus on creating content and who do most of their work behind a desk may not benefit in the same way, and focusing on that area could end up wasting, not saving, resources.
The shift toward business-centred mobile apps will bring solutions to many of these problems, Mr. Lowenstein predicts, such as the emergence of better security, including the improved ability for IT departments to conduct remote wipes and locks if devices are lost or stolen.
But the logistics of setting up an app system has other challenges as well. Should apps be outsourced or created in-house? Should the company create an internal program, similar to iTunes, where apps can be downloaded? How do you ensure updates are continually pushed onto devices? And, most importantly, how do you persuade employees to use apps?
It's critical that organizations consider these challenges, Ms. Lopez said, because it's becoming clear that having a strong mobile enterprise app strategy will be necessary to be competitive.
"This is the year when [businesses will]start getting really serious about their apps for their employees," Ms. Lopez said. "Mobile is going to be an integral part. You need to figure out how to best leverage that."