When Google changed the name of Android Market to Google Play six months ago, I argued that it wasn't the retreat from the enterprise that it looked like, but actually foreshadowed Google starting up an enterprise app store to complement its fun-focused one.
I guess I've spent too much time watching Microsoft do things. Redmond never met a market it didn't want to segment. Or maybe Larry Page is really serious about focusing Google.
Either way, it increasingly looks like Apple might be the first platform vendor to introduce its own enterprise app store to pair with its wildly-popular App Store. To which, I say, hooray!
As smooth as the iOS experience is on the front end for users, it traditionally posed difficulties for IT managers, primarily in the app management side.
The issue, as Ryan Faas so ably explains, is the iTunes-based App Store's origins as a online record store. DRM quibbles aside, this translated well for individuals buying apps with their own credit card, but not so well for big companies.
For example: say an employee wants to get a mobile CRM app for iPad that his company requires. The employee can go ahead and buy it and claim it on expenses. But then that app is personally owned by the employee through his iTunes account if he leaves.
This is why large companies strongly prefer to buy hundreds or thousands of apps at a time via a volume software license that is paid for via purchase order, not credit card.
Apple has taken four major steps in the past 18 months to better accommodate partners, or let its mobile app management (MAM) software partners do so.
1) The first workaround was the Volume Purchase Program. Introduced in 2011, the VPP enabled companies can buy a large set of App Store redemption codes that it can distribute to employees, like gift cards, to buy apps. That gets around the headache of credit cards and employee expenses.
Still VPP is not a true volume software license. Apps are still owned by the employee via his/her iTunes account, not by the company. Even if an employee's device is owned by the company, the apps are not.
2) Building upon the VPP was the release earlier this spring of the Apple Configurator utility. The Apple Configurator augmented VPP by letting IT admins unlink apps from employee iTunes accounts and link them to the managed device. That way, if an employee leaves or a device is sent to the scrap heap, the app can be erased, and the license value applied to another app on another device.
Apple Configurator is not hiccup-free, by any stretch. It only runs on Mac (the also free iPhone Configurator for Windows offers similar features). And it doesn't enable the same level of control over BYOD devices. But it is a huge improvement.
(By the way, here's two ways that SAP is evolving Mobile Device Management (MDM): 1) Powering Afaria with the Hana in-memory database and bringing it to the cloud; 2) Partnering with Box on mobile/cloud management and security. Read what Gartner and IDC have to say about Afaria and the convergence of MDM and MAM.)
3) The recently-released iOS 6 works in conjunction with Apple Configurator to further empower mobile administrators. Now, IT can use Apple Configurator with third-party MDM software like SAP Afaria to pre-load apps, and later automatically reclaim those apps based on group policies. For instance, app licenses for retired devices can be returned without an administrator's intervention.
(Apple Configurator also lets companies prevent employees from downloading 'Erotica' from its iBookstore. That's a topic for another blog.)
4) Even before iOS 6, Apple had launched a custom developer program for B2B apps. For enterprise app vendors, this is huge, allowing them to forego charging for apps. This way, it can bill its enterprise customer outside of the App Store process, avoiding Apple's customary 30% cut and the need to use a credit cards instead of purchase orders.
Via the program, ISVs can also distribute their apps privately to customers. Enterprises are loathe to see custom apps displayed publicly for competitive and security reasons.
These are all huge steps that bring iOS more on par with the manageability of Windows.
And it could be a precursor towards Apple launching a full enterprise app store, argued Canalys analyst Tim Sheherd during a talk at AppsWorld Europe last week.
Does that spell doom for third-party enterprise app stores such as the SAP Store for Mobile Apps, or internally-managed enterprise app stores? Not at all.
It all comes down to diversity. Most ISVs build apps for multiple platforms. Companies will want to go to a marketplace where they can comparison shop for best-of-breed apps that solve their particular business problem, no matter if it runs on iOS or Android or BlackBerry or Windows 8. Indeed, apps should drive device selection, not the other way around.
That's where an SAP Store for Mobile Apps, which has apps for 3 out of 4 of those platforms today, both from SAP and its ecosystem of partners, would still beat an iOS-only enterprise app store.
Also, most companies will have multiple platforms inside their business. My employer, SAP, for instance, supports RIM, iOS, Android for its workers. That's 3 platforms. Does it want to have employees going to 3 different platform-run app stores, as well as the ISV-operated ones like the SAP Store?
No, the better experience for employees - and admins - is a single internal enterprise app store managed by its MDM/MAM tool that offers one place for workers to download the apps available to them (based on role, geography, device, etc.).
My guess is that MAM-run enterprise app stores will become the primary front-end for most workers. These internal app stores will aggregate and curate all of the various app stores, whether enterprise or not.
An Apple-run enterprise app store will be great, as will be a Google one when it arrives. But either or both will just be one of several app stores that large enterprises will need to oversee. And that's what MAM software will do for you.