Mobile business apps shake up

In the thriving and highly-competitive consumer mobile applications (apps) marketplace, Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL) and Google Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOG) are well out in front. In the enterprise space, the landscape is a little different though, and some of the players, are a little different. And with Hewlett Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ) buying Palm and gaining Palm’s webOS, the business apps battle just got a lot more interesting.

On the consumer side, it’s all about the app store, which provides readily accessible infrastructure for any application developer to find a market for their wares. Apple has the most thriving developer community and popular app store, with Google Android, BlackBerry and Microsoft also in the game.

According to a survey of over 1,000 app developers by Appcelerator, creator of a software platform for mobile developers that lets them port their apps easily between different mobile operating systems, 87 per cent of developers are interested in developing applications for Apple’s iPhone, followed by Android at 81 per cent, 53 per cent for Apple’s iPad, 43 per cent for BlackBerry, and 34 per cent for Windows Phone 7.

However, those numbers are skewed to the consumer side. While you will find some business apps in these app stores, they’re primarily end-user focused apps. If you want to mobilize your back end CRM you’re not going to an app store, you’re going to the software vendor or an ISV.

Large armies

Scott Schwarzhoff, Appcelerator’s vice-president of marketing, says software vendors have “large armies” of enterprise Web developers, trying to bring their clients over to the mobile space.

While the device sales numbers from research firm Canalys don’t differentiate consumer from enterprise, they do back-up the enterprise dominance of Research in Motion Ltd. (TSE: RIM). The firm forecasts RIM taking 43 per cent of the device market in 2010, followed by Apple at 21.3 per cent, Android at 18.9 per cent and Microsoft at just 7.2 per cent.

“BlackBerry has been the platform of choice for the enterprise for some time, but it faces challenges,” says Schwarzhoff. “It has good security and IT approval, but a lot of IT shops within large organizations have qualified certain versions of BlackBerry, often with older OSs. RIM has a large enterprise footprint, but it’s hard to stay current on the OS.”

The iPhone, on the other hand, often gets into the enterprise by the back door, often over the objections of the IT department. And while Apple does have an iPhone for business section on its Web site and has taken some steps to ease enterprise integration, Apple’s first priority remains the consumer space.

“As a human being, you’re drawn to the iPhone because of the user experience,” says Schwarzhoff. “Maybe it’s not Apple’s preferred focus, but it’s clearly something they’re going to gain share on just based on the nature of the device.”

The question for many businesses becomes who provides the device – the user, or the enterprise – and can the business prevent users from bringing non-approved devices into the network.

“Mobile devices carry with them a special designation. They’re neither work nor business devices, they’re both,” says Schwarzhoff. “You can leave your desktop at work and have your home PC, or you can have a laptop provided by work that’s often locked-down on the applications you can use. But by definition, a mobile phone is something you carry with you all the time.

While BlackBerry has dominated the enterprise and IT has resisted the iPhone for security concerns, things may be changing. James Alexander, senior vice-president with Info Tech Research Group, says the business mobility market is reaching a tipping point.

Businesses will increasingly embrace smart phones with enterprise-class applications, and he says HP’s acquisition of Palm could shake things up.

“Palm webOS is an entirely new offering from Palm, and it has gotten rave reviews,” says Alexander.

InfoTech’s worldwide research shows 70 per cent of businesses use mobility as a business function, and within that group 20 to 30 per cent are using smartphones. Within four to five years, that number will be entirely smartphones.

“The market is beginning to tip,” says Alexander. “As we move forward, we’ll see organizations increasingly embrace smart phones as a centerpiece of the corporate computing platform. That means running enterprise applications on end devices.”

With HP adding Palm’s webOS and devices to its own assets – enterprise credibility, global scale, and the ability to integrate nearly every piece of enterprise IT infrastructure, from data centre to end-point devices – HP may be able to succeed in the enterprise mobility space where Microsoft has been unable to gain traction.

“Windows Mobile is not a terrific platform,” says Alexander. With Windows Phone 7, Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ: MSFT) is putting more emphasis on the ability to use Microsoft apps anywhere, on anything, but he says it faces an uphill battle.

That’s borne-out by mobile subscriber data from market research firm Go to Yahoo. The firm has Microsoft’s share of the market dropping from 19.7 per cent to 15.7 per cent between October and January. RIM grew from 41.3 per cent to 43 per cent in the same period, while Apple grew from 24.8 per cent to 25.1 per cent and Google Android from 2.8 per cent to 7.1 per cent.

With Windows Phone 7 not due until late in 2010, its market share may continue to decline before its new mobile OS hits the market, allowing more room for HP and Palm to battle BlackBerry in the enterprise. But Appcelerator’s Schwarzhoff says Microsoft shouldn’t be counted out.

“They’re in a position of strength with applications such as Office, and Exchange on the back-end, but they’re playing catch-up in the mobile space, big-time,” says Schwarzhoff.

Scratch and abandon

Essentially, he says with the new OS, Microsoft is starting from scratch, abandoning an OS they haven’t made any major changes to in a decade that just didn’t support current-generation mobile functionality.

Microsoft isn’t ceding ground, however. Greg Milligan, mobility team unit lead for Microsoft Canada, points-out that applications that require complex back end integration aren’t going to be sourced from an app store.

It’s going to require a channel partner, and he notes that Microsoft’s Visual Studio is the top developer platform in the world.

“We just announced at our Mix conference in March that the developer tools for Windows Phone 7 are all available for free, and we’re going hard to our developer community for this platform,” says Milligan. “We think we have the right tools and approach to get developers excited about developing on Windows Phone 7.”

He adds Microsoft’s strength on the enterprise back end is a major plus for mobile developers, with the data businesses want to push-out to mobile devices often stores on a SQL database.

Microsoft software makes it easy for a developer to push that data out and develop an attractive mobile front-end.

“I think we have a leg up in terms of other platforms around ease of access to SQL server and ease of access to developer tools,” says Milligan. “It’s not a start from scratch development effort like with other platforms.”

Follow Jeff Jedras on Twitter: <a href="http://www.twitter.com/JeffJedrasCDN"@JeffJedrasCDN/

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras
A veteran technology and business journalist, Jeff Jedras began his career in technology journalism in the late 1990s, covering the booming (and later busting) Ottawa technology sector for Silicon Valley North and the Ottawa Business Journal, as well as everything from municipal politics to real estate. He later covered the technology scene in Vancouver before joining IT World Canada in Toronto in 2005, covering enterprise IT for ComputerWorld Canada. He would go on to cover the channel as an assistant editor with CDN. His writing has appeared in the Vancouver Sun, the Ottawa Citizen and a wide range of industry trade publications.

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