As more and more tablet computers enter the workplace, IT managers are facing this question: Do you allow employees to load any applications they want on the devices, or do you offer a specific set of enterprise applications -- sort of an internal "app store"?
The answer often comes down to factors such as your organization's goals, how employees are using tablets on the job, and your corporate culture. One possibility is to adapt your existing smartphone policies to tablets.
"Enterprise applications [on tablets] are an important and growing phenomenon," says Philippe Winthrop, managing director of the Enterprise Mobility Foundation, a Boston-based think tank. "Organizations are realizing that a lot of applications that the company uses can be relevant on mobile devices."
Whether it involves creating software internally or purchasing prebuilt apps, there must be some level of control, Winthrop says.
The Enterprise Mobility Foundation recommends that organizations set up their own in-house enterprise app stores. By adopting an approved list of apps, enterprises can ensure that users download programs that the organization has tested and OK'd and can maintain, Winthrop says.
Imris, a Winnipeg, Manitoba, provider of medical equipment, has given Apple iPads to sales and marketing personnel, product managers, executives and other employees. The company lets users download software from an internal app store that it set up using a tool from Apperian called Enterprise App Services Environment, says Ben VanOsch, IT director at Imris.
The IT group identifies publicly available apps that it wants to adopt as recommended company tools, and they're added to the Imris app store. This allows for "consistency" throughout the enterprise, VanOsch explains.
Currently, Imris has 16 privately developed apps and two public ones in its app store, which the company calls InfoCentral. It expects to deploy two more public apps within a couple of months, after the IT group vets them, and it's in the process of developing two more private applications that will be released by mid-June.
The company has a total of 32 iPad users, all of whom have downloaded apps from InfoCentral. "We are considering deploying iPads to our board of directors, other leaders and to every employee," says VanOsch. "We believe the iPad can become a strategic communication tool, providing increased timeliness of the message and increased environmental responsibility by reducing paper as a means of communicating."
While the app store is the preferred source of applications, VanOsch says it's likely that Imris iPad users have downloaded personal software as well -- and he says that's OK with him.
The company's strategy provides flexibility for end users while at the same time giving IT some control over what can be used on the devices. Most users "have the same app requirements," says VanOsch. "However, due to their different roles and localization needs, [they have] the latitude to personalize their iPads in a manner they believe will provide them the greatest benefit."
The company app store "allows us to manage the deployment of apps from our main office and [keep] everyone worldwide with the same message and tools," he says. In the past, marketing materials or sales tools deployed to teams could be altered or grow outdated, resulting in an increased risk of company representatives presenting conflicting messages to potential customers.
The Middle Ground
Other organizations are allowing employees to select from a range of publicly available applications -- with some controls -- rather than creating in-house app stores.
The Morris School District in Morristown, N.J., has deployed about 200 iPads to high schools and middle schools, and it plans to increase the number considerably in the coming months. Students and teachers use the devices to download content such as electronic textbooks, and for subject-related applications, such as astronomy software for science classes.
Tablet computer tips
* Create a clear policy about tablets in the workplace, including which applications can be used for business purposes and how company-owned data should be treated.
* Consider using partitioning tools that separate business-owned data from consumer data on the devices.
* Encourage feedback about which applications seem particularly useful for the organization or for specific groups.
* Seek volume discounts for tablet applications as a way to control costs.
— Bob Violino
But all tablet applications must be approved by the IT department or by "content supervisors" within each school building, says Tim McDade, director of technology for the district. Anyone is free to suggest applications that have educational value.
"We don't want to hinder either teachers or students [from using] what's out there; we don't want to put up barriers," McDade says. Allowing people to suggest apps enables the district to keep up with the constantly changing landscape of software, he says. About 100 apps that users recommended are now in use, and a great number of them were free.
Schumacher Group, a Lafayette, La., company that provides emergency-room management services to hospitals, also gives users latitude in selecting applications for tablets. The company recently launched a tablet pilot program through which about 35 iPads have been deployed, says CIO Doug Menefee. Schumacher Group lets individuals deploy and manage their applications.
The IT department works with users to determine whether particular applications will meet their needs; if they will, it procures the apps. "I'm a big believer in not trying to control the user population," Menefee says. "I feel that by putting too much control on users, you don't get them exposed to other user interfaces and other solutions. I like it when users come to us with a business problem and say, 'If it just acted like X app, then that would meet my needs.' "
On the spectrum that ranges from total control to total freedom, Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., is on the freedom end. The IT staff supports tablets for use by students, faculty and staff, and the college allows users to load anything they want on the devices, even those owned by the college, as long as the users abide by college policies and regulations.
"We believe that employees will select apps that make them more productive or their work lives easier," says Bill Thirsk, vice president of IT at Marist. "It clearly fosters creativity. And the IT department does not want to be the app police. We are likely to miss great apps if we block innovation."
Should an application appear that's harmful to the college's network, is out of line with policies or in some way breaks the law, officials will block it from being downloaded or transmitted via college-owned networks. Further, students "must also abide by our network acceptable-use policy," Thirsk says.
Nevertheless, "as the CIO of an educational institution dedicated to innovation," he adds, "I must support faculty and students with just about any and all use cases that are presented."
Violino is a freelance writer in Massapequa Park, N.Y. You can contact him at email@example.com.
Tools for building an app store
You could build your own enterprise app store to distribute and manage mobile applications. IBM, for example, created its own online app marketplace called Whirlwind, according to a recent BusinessWeek article.
But there are a handful of vendors that offer software intended to make the process of opening and maintaining an app store easier. They include AppCentral (formerly Ondeego), Apperian, MobileIron, Partnerpedia and Rhomobile.
AppCentral, for example, claims that its Mobile App Management software handles three major challenges facing enterprises trying to manage apps on company- and employee-owned mobile devices: distribution, security and administration.
Distribution means getting approved apps installed on users' devices. AppCentral distributes native apps, HTML5 apps or links to consumer marketplace apps. "Role-based distribution delivers the right apps to the right employees," the company says on its website.
AppCentral says it secures corporate apps and data with a "mobile app wrapper." And it wipes apps if the device is lost or if the employee who uses the app leaves the company -- without touching personal information on employee-owned devices.
To run the store, AppCentral manages, monitors and updates mobile apps over the air. The software also manages licenses and tracks app installation and usage, the vendor says. AppCentral's software is available in an on-premises version or as a hosted service.
The next step in the evolution of enterprise app stores is to allow employees to rate the apps' usefulness -- something IBM is encouraging its employees to do on its internal social network.
Giving people the ability to rate and discuss apps could have far-reaching consequences, according to a recent Forrester Research report. It concluded: "Participation in an employee social community where app store applications can be rated, and new ones asked for, will stimulate increasingly savvy mobile users to share knowledge about new tools that save time, facilitate collaboration and communication, and also nurture an innovation culture within the company."
— Mitch Betts