By Mike Haney
With both iTunes and Google Play approaching nearly 1 million apps each, there’s no question that apps are the new paradigm for software, particularly for today’s touchscreen mobile devices.
But did you know there is another app world not counted in those 1 million? That’s the enterprise app ecosystem, where companies like yours can create an app specifically for your business and distribute it internally. Gartner estimates that by 2017, a quarter of all companies will have their own internal app stores. Add to that the estimate that by 2016 a majority of companies will have a “bring your own device” (BYOD) policy, and it’s clear that companies can no longer afford to ignore the app ecosystem as a tool for their business.
And why would they? Apps present real advantages over both print and the web. First, apps can be tools as well as information delivery systems, taking advantage of all the devices’ native functions, so your sales team can not only show a presentation, but take down a customer’s info, create a quote and register them in Salesforce, all with one app on their phone or tablet. (Plus, apps work offline, perfect for employees in the field.) Second, content apps can change information delivery from pull to push. You publish new information on your HR site, but how do you get employees to come look at it? Instead, create an HR app, where you can send content directly to your employees’ devices and they can be alerted that it’s there. Finally, apps allow you to distribute content cheaply (no printing and no distribution costs) without skimping on the quality—you can still tell a visually compelling story in a way that is difficult or impossible on most intranets.
So how can you get your company into the app space cheaply and quickly? Stop Googling “enterprise app” and start searching “app platform.”
App platforms are to apps what systems like WordPress are to the web: a set of pre-built options you can customize to your needs, without having to build the whole thing from scratch. There are dozens of app platforms out there, but many are marketed to those looking for public apps—from content publishing to retail functions. But there’s no reason a platform primarily aimed at making beautiful magazines can’t be used to craft and distribute your sales materials or your annual report. Any app can be distributed privately as an enterprise app in iTunes or Google – it’s just a simple license change with those marketplaces.
The primary trade-off of an app platform over a custom-developed app is that you are typically limited to the functions that platform provides—the app code is usually set and you can’t add extra features (although some platforms do offer SDKs for deeper customization). The main advantage, however, is that you don’t need to hire developers both to build, or more importantly, to maintain the app—mobile OS’s are constantly changing and no app is static. So building yourself is an ongoing investment. On a platform, they’ll do the development for you, including adding new features.
This is not only a huge cost saver—a platform app could literally cost 1 percent what a custom app could—but also frees your team to focus on the strategic aspects of your app initiative rather than the technical. You can put time into figuring out the best use of apps in your organization, the success metrics for your apps, and the improvements you want to make.
To pick the right platform, start by determining what you want your app to do, and look for platforms that cover most of those features. When examining a platform provider, pay attention to:
• How long they’ve been in business and how many customers they have—there are a lot of players here, pick an experienced one.
• Their support infrastructure—can you get ahold of someone if your app breaks, because you can’t fix it yourself.
• How often they release updates—you want a platform that continues to innovate.
• How flexible are they on the features? Can you request features be added to the platform or get custom development if necessary?
• Do they offer analytics, so you can closely securitize user behavior and make improvements?
• Do they let you host the app on your developer account? This is crucial so you can switch platforms later without losing your app.
• How easy is it to get content into your app? Do you have the skills already in house?
Once you sign up with a platform, building your app is typically as easy as opening a developer account, uploading some images to a web site and clicking a button. Then add your content and publish. You can get an app live in your business in under a month, as opposed to six months plus for a custom project. And in a space this new, the key to finding a successful strategy is the ability to get in quickly and cheaply, learn and revise.
About the author
Mike Haney has been part of the Bonnier AB-owned Mag+ since it was a concept in 2009. He was U.S. director when it launched in 2011 and is now chief creative officer. The former Popular Science executive editor is also a contributing editor at PopSci and Condé Nast Traveler. He started his career as a graphic designer.