App-ifying Business

Between the Apple, Google, Blackberry and Microsoft stores there are over 1 million apps that you can download to a handheld device to do anything from playing games and watching movies to managing your finances and booking travel. Consumers can perform thousands of tasks using their smart devices, to the point that PC sales are declining relative to historical trends while sales of tablets and smart phones are going through the roof. Consumers are doing more on smart devices and less on traditional form factor PCs. But so far, with limited exceptions, business users continue to perform the majority of their day to day work-related tasks on desktop and laptop PCs. There are a number of reasons for this, including usability, security, suitability and other functional reasons; but there are other less tangible constraints such as cultural inertia and the inability of IT departments to react quickly enough in retrofitting new end-user technologies onto legacy business systems. Technically it can be done. But IT departments are notorious for getting stuck in their ways.

I have no doubt that in five years time a majority of work functions will be initiated / performed / managed on smart devices. These devices will be a mix of tablets, phablets, phones and a new breed of laptops and PCs. This new breed of PCs will be more like tablets than traditional PCs in the way you buy them, the way you put applications onto them, the security model and the way software is updated. The big difference will be in how applications are developed, distributed and accessed by business users.

Today, the part of a corporate system that users see is usually a laptop or desktop PC with a proprietary and standardized configuration, or build, of Windows with a collection of specific office and productivity tools, email client, browser, anti-virus software, third party and custom-built fat client applications, etc. These are usually doled out and supported by an in-house or outsourced IT department. Change is slow, and it seems that once you’ve upgraded from XP to Windows 7, it’s time to contemplate Windows 8, fearing that once that update is done, there will be a new version to roll-out.

But what if the business user experience more closely matched the consumer experience? What if you could go to the Apple app store or Google Play store, search for and download your company’s app. Once it’s loaded onto your device, you authenticate and voila – your corporate workplace is available and you can perform all of the tasks you are authorized to perform. On any compatible device, phone to PC. All of the hassles associated with keeping everyone’s desktop up to date have just vanished. To a certain extent it’s already happening. Users – the bane of some IT departments’ existence – are out there buying all manner of the latest devices and figuring out how to access corporate email, collaboration and other services. So it’s users that will drive this.

How much can companies save with this approach? It’s hard to quantify because of the wide number of variables. Application development and support costs will temporarily go up but should stabilize and return to where they are once IT departments figure out how to do this. Infrastructure costs should go down. If the average annual cost per seat for a desktop or laptop PC, including hardware, software and support is $1,000, then after the migration to the app model has happened there is no reason why this number shouldn’t be halved. If you have 20,000 seats then that’s a cool ten million. But cost savings won’t be the only driver. Most companies will do this because it’ll be easier, and they can get staff to buy their own equipment – BYOC! And staff can work from anywhere.

So what does this mean? It means that the next big thing in IT is going to be the ‘app-ification’ of business. Once it starts it will be bigger than Y2K, bigger than Cloud. Companies will scramble for expertise, resources, quick wins. Careers will be launched and made. New companies purporting to have the magic answer to appifying your business will come out of nowhere. The big IT companies will reassuringly tell you that they’ve been working on this for years. Who should you trust? Who should you go to? It’s too early to tell. Certainly there is a lot of expertise in India and China in building apps for smart devices. So there will be a lot of work done there. But the business apps will need to integrate with legacy systems, which implies that existing application support teams will need to be involved.

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