8 July 2012

Step away from that corporate app store

The app store concept has become an accepted feature of consumer electronics remarkably quickly. When Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams were writing about producer/consumers in Wikinomics in 2006 major corporations like Apple and Sony were trying to block their customers efforts to open up their devices and add new functions. It was another two years before Apple added their app store into their ecosystem and yet now it is hard to remember not having access to thousands of applications on your smart phone.

The app store user experience quickly caught the imagination of other sectors. When I wrote about the UK public sector IT strategy in 2011 (link to article on PA Consulting site) Apple's success had already made a big impact and, perhaps, the concept is now poised to disrupt corporate IT in the same way. Or maybe not!

The irresistible force of consumerisation?


I recently exchanged tweets with @ij_cox about a Computer World article he had shared on enterprise app stores. The media hype about Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) and the consumerisation of IT is raising the profile of specialised or private app stores for businesses. The article has some good advice about addressing some of the issues that would arise with an enterprise app store but it reads as if there are no alternatives. I think this ignores the biggest issue which is: why should a CIO introduce an app store?

Like most organisations (over 80% according to some surveys) my firm already uses BYOD and app stores. I can get apps for handling my expenses or collaborating with colleagues on my corporate smart phone and laptop and also my personal devices and home computers. We even have a form of private app store for accessing specialist applications which are not economic to licence on a company wide basis but it is actually just part of our traditional internal IT service catalogue. What the IT media (and the UK public sector IT strategy) is talking about goes far beyond this. They envisage something that looks like one of the public app stores and gives staff in an organisation a choice of attractive, easy to access applications which they can use, or not, as they see fit to accomplish their work using their choice of device. It is an attractive vision. Unfortunately it does not make much sense.

The immovable object of microeconomics


What many commentators forget is that app stores exist because they drive up user revenue. Device manufacturers can charge premium prices for devices with plenty of apps and software developers and publishers can generate revenue from advertising, bolt-ons and enhanced versions of free applications. Mobile service providers are pleased as users who are careful about when and where they make calls do not have so much control over how apps use their data plan. Consumers seem pretty happy with this arrangement too and very few regret spending $500 on a tablet which will get most use playing Angry Birds!

However, the trade-offs that individuals need to make in their personal finances are very different from those faced by organisations. Staff working in a theme park have a very different user experience to the paying visitors. Logistics companies don't provide their delivery drivers with family cars. For similar reasons it is foolish to think that the consumer success of app stores will automatically translate into the world of corporate IT. Are you really going to invest corporate resources in buying, integrating and maintaining more than one expenses system so your staff can have a choice on their iPhone? How will your executive peers react in 12 - 18 months if better devices, telecoms and mobile web browsers makes the app model obsolete?

Portfolio management for app stores


You won't be surprised to learn that portfolio management can provide some useful insight in this area. I have previously written about the dangers of assuming that standardisation and consolidation are always positive in IT. In many ways the vision of corporate app stores represents the opposite extreme and is just as inappropriate. As illustrated in the diagram above your applications portfolio will contain a variety of different systems with varying characteristics. For some of these a single standard is appropriate. For others diversity and choice may be beneficial or an outright operational requirement. App stores are a incredibly useful tools for corporations but make sure you play to their strengths. Use app stores as a way to directly or indirectly engage with your customers and drive revenue. Give your staff the tools required for the job.

What is your organisation planning to do about the app store phenomenon? Add a comment or use the Twitter button below to let me know what you think.

Related blog post: What are app stores and content ecosystems actually for? by @mbrit

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