Mobile

Why the best iPad business apps won’t be in the App Store

ipad in useEditor’s note: This discussion about enterprise mobility is one of the five themes we will be focusing on at the VentureBeat Mobile Summit, on April 25-26. We’ve carefully invited the top executives in mobile to discuss the biggest challenges of the day, which, if solved, can lead to much faster growth in the industry. And at our enterprise session, we’ll have top executives around the table from a number of companies, including Verizon, AT&T, Cisco, Salesforce, Box.net, and more. (If you think you should be part of the discussion, you can apply for a ticket.)

Don’t expect to find the core applications that run the pistons of a business as native apps in Apple’s App Store. With a few exceptions, the future is touch-enabled web applications that will bring a more complete version of a vendor’s feature set to any tablet.

I’ll say it more explicitly:  Native apps are for phones, gadgets and games.  Touch-enabled web apps are for tablets and broad business applications.

The iPhone’s size has almost necessitated an alternative user experience for business apps, but the iPad’s screen real estate does not suffer that limitation.

The iPad has been in the market for over one year.  Conspicuously absent from Smartsheet’s Top iPad Apps for Business lists — produced over the last 8 months by 10 industry watchers — are any cross-business operating apps tackling customer relationship management (CRM), accounting, project management and the like.

Smart software companies are building tablet access into their core products by touch-enabling their existing web applications.  For some vendors with form-based solutions, the effort may be fairly simple, for others with rich desktop-class UIs, it is more complex.

Some serious business apps have native tablet versions, but they are either narrow business functions or small carve-outs of their overall solution. Here are some examples:

Some examples of companies with broader business operations applications that are benefiting from the touch-enabled web app approach are:

The key reasons to go native on the iPhone / iPad have been:  performance, access to device features (geo-location, camera, etc….), offline support, and most importantly, an entry in the App Store Directory (this will be the only remaining benefit to building native business apps in 12- 18 months).

But the following dynamics in the tablet ecosystem are predicting the demise of that native apps advantage:

Competition Among Tablets Will Dramatically Improve Performance
Intense competition in the tablet market will drive hardware, browser and connectivity performance closer and closer to parity with PCs.  Note the step up in hardware power from the iPad to the recently released Motorola Xoom and iPad 2.  Vendors do not build native apps for PCs and Laptops any more, and the reasons for that will be just as valid for tablets.

HTML5 Will Erase Native App’s Device Advantage
HTML5 will give browser apps powers that until recently have only been accessible by native apps such as instant on, access to camera, location, and off-line.  And, unless it’s a game, most apps require connectivity to be useful anyway.  (Here’s a good write-up on this, and here’s another VentureBeat piece on HTML5 versus native.)

Web Apps Will Outpace and Outreach the Natives (adding features vs platforms)
As more tablets come to market on more operating systems, ISVs will become weighted down building redundant apps for each OS.  This will inherently come at the expense of adding more features to a single web app.  Inherent in any application development toolkit are its limitations, and Apple’s is no different.  Richer experiences are possible with today’s browser development tools.

Businesses Will Favor App Stores that Include “Bookmark a Link” Apps
Apple forbids “pointers” or “very thin wrappers” to touch-enabled web business apps.  This benefits Apple, but not business users.  There are a host of good business apps that work on the iPad browser, but they’re not present in the App Store.  This is slowing the growth of the iPad as a business tool.  The marketplace that lists compatible business apps will have a broad audience – one that expects them.

The debate will continue on both the mobile and tablet fronts and it depends on a multitude of factors, but ultimately businesses will choose which approach delivers a more compelling user experience for their specific application.  ZDNet reports on three of the key business scenarios prevalent with the iPad, which includes 1) sales people out in the field, 2) executives on an overnight trip, and 3) warehouse managers, retail floor staff, medical staff, and anybody else that needs real access to apps while on their feet.

A tablet untethers the user categories above from a desk if it can handle typically more comprehensive operational business applications that can cover a diversity of business needs. For example,  this video shows the owner of a 109-year-old lumber operation bringing automation to the mill floor via the iPad.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVDNZhaUSok?rel=0&w=640&h=390]

For this company and the millions just like it, the need for rich tablet-ready business apps is real, but native apps aren’t there yet. Thankfully, there is an app for that. But you’ll have to look beyond the App Store.

Brent Frei is the founder of Smartsheet, an online project management and collaboration tool. He submitted this story to VentureBeat as part of a series leading up to our Mobile Summit later this month.


Mobile developer or publisher? VentureBeat is studying mobile marketing automation. Fill out our 5-minute survey, and we'll share the data with you.