Enterprises to turn to mobile apps

Joining consumer rush for mobile apps last year, industry can expect enterprises to look increasingly to app stores for business offerings, say market observers.
Written by Victoria Ho, Contributor

While last year saw a crop of marketplaces emerge from different mobile players, this year will catch more enterprises joining in the app feast, say industry voices.

2009 saw the likes of Microsoft and Research in Motion (RIM) launch their own mobile marketplaces, in hopes of capitalizing on the success of Apple's App Store. This has been estimated to have netted the apps emporium US$440 million a year since it opened in July 2008.

Eyeing Apple's hold on the market, Nokia acknowledged late last year that it had a thing or two to learn from the Cupertino company in that respect, and would put more focus on its Ovi store. Samsung, too, announced it would release a marketplace built on top of its new platform, Bada.

Some analysts have been optimistic about the growth of mobile marketplaces. In a series of reports, Ovum said the surge in the number of mobile apps downloaded would slow from 153 percent each year between 2008 and 2011, to 33 percent by the end of 2014. Nonetheless, it would hit 18.7 billion apps downloaded--including free and paid-for apps--by 2014, worth an estimated U$6 billion.

Moving into 2010, enterprises will be looking to app marketplaces for a wider selection of mobile office apps, aided by the proliferation of smartphone devices, industry voices told ZDNet Asia.

Shalini Verma, communications research manager with IDC Asia-Pacific, said in an e-mail interview that enterprises will feel the boom in smartphone usage as businesses rely heavily on mobile communication, tapping this for remote work.

"Enterprises are allowing teleworkers to remotely but securely access the corporate network. Businesses are also willing to provide employees with mobile devices and applications in order to give them more flexibility," said Verma.

With regard to procuring mobile apps from such stores, Verma said businesses can consider using apps from mobile stores. She explained that many mobile marketplaces are sources of unique business apps and cater to localized business needs. SMBs (small and midsize businesses) may find such stores particularly useful if the companies have no resources to manage or provide inhouse mobile apps, she noted.

Security a mounting concern
Verma said businesses should manage these apps like they would desktop versions, but to download them only from well-known vendors or service providers that follow stringent processes to certify mobile apps and provide support for them.

Enterprises should also adopt a "walled garden approach", she said. This, she suggested, can take the form of enterprises pre-approving a selection of apps for users, or tying up with mobile app stores to set up a more rigorous testing and support process for the selected apps.

She also cautioned that there is danger of blame shifting in the event of issues arising during the support process should the mobile device vendor and mobile application store provider be separate entities. "Therefore, enterprises need to exercise caution when drawing up support contracts for such mobile application stores," she said.

Singapore-based Symantec systems engineering manager, Ronnie Ng, agreed. In an e-mail to ZDNet Asia, he said companies should be mindful of mobile access to the enterprise network from apps.

He cited an October 2009 Symantec survey which found that 86 percent of workers surveyed believed their mobile devices were critical for business productivity. A third of enterprises also allowed employees to access confidential company data through their mobiles, he said.

Besides the heightened security risks, managing mobile devices presents greater IT complexity to enterprises, he added.

"As employees download mobile applications and allow access to business data and services, enterprises are required to manage and control this growing number of applications, while protecting corporate information and managing the associated business risk," said Ng.

He offered an example of a data leak: November last year saw an iPhone worm capable of stealing data contained on the phone, as well as giving an attacker control over the device.

While most mobile marketplaces have strict terms and conditions to raise the security of their apps, these efforts may not thwart persistent cybercriminals, he said.

Ng recommended that enterprises start by educating employees on best practices such as checking digital signatures before installing apps, and deploying network end point protection, antivirus and firewalling technology.

IT managers should also control and enforce compliance with security policies by assessing mobile host integrity statuses regularly, he said.

Andy Norton, Asia director of product management for Cisco Systems' IronPort division, said the impact of mobile apps should be regarded on the same level as desktop apps.

"I can't see why mobile marketplaces would be any less safe when well-reputed core enterprise apps are being compromised everyday," Norton said.

He recommended that corporations take a varied technology approach to implement leakage protection and reputation management policies. "You need to ask yourself, where did that app come from and where is this information going and what will it be used for.

"With the pervasive use of iPhones, there is a possibility of rogue apps, but the biggest threat really is the ready availability of these apps," he noted.

One analyst, however, was doubtful of the widespread impact that mobile apps would have on enterprises. Canalys senior analyst, Daryl Chiam, said in a phone interview with ZDNet Asia that consumers are downloading the bulk of app store offerings; mobile store apps may not meet enterprises' specialized needs.

Enterprises would likely be seeking mobile versions of their enterprise apps such as databases. As such, they would look directly to business app vendors for such apps and support, said Chiam.

Enterprises would also be interested in volume licensing, he said. "Businesses probably don't want each employee to go out and buy the apps on their own."

Hence, there exists increasing opportunity for enterprise vendors to carry mobile versions of their desktop apps, to increase revenue as well as user reliance on their apps, noted Chiam.

Since Apple's App Store debuted, enterprise vendors the likes of Oracle, SAP and Salesforce.com have turned to the marketplace to stamp their mark on it as well.

App stores screen for security
A Microsoft spokesperson said the company lists tested apps from certified developers on its store, Windows Marketplace for Mobile. By offering apps to users through their Microsoft-registered accounts, transactions and customer information are stored and managed, the spokesperson added.

Gary Chan, developer relations manager for Forum Nokia, Asia-Pacific, said mobile marketplaces provide enterprises with a wealth of apps to discover and try. However, he noted that businesses looking to implement apps that tap deeper into the backend network should use a systems integrator or reseller to help roll out the app. Nokia works with developers to enable such models, he added.

Chan assured that businesses can "completely trust Nokia's Ovi Store to serve clean apps". One way the Finnish company achieves this is through raising the bar on developer submission by allowing only registered companies, not individuals, to publish content. "This ensures the content has accountability and legitimate owners," he explained.

Java and Symbian apps must be digitally certified as well, he added.

Gregory Wade, managing director, Southeast Asia, RIM, said apps on its BlackBerry App World store go through tests and reviews before getting listed.

Wade added that RIM's BlackBerry smartphones have enterprise-friendly security controls meant to help IT managers limit workers' access to the corporate network. On the backend, BlackBerry Enterprise Server allows companies to control third-party apps on smartphones, he said.

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