March 09, 2013

The Enterprise Invades the Apps Playground


SXSW has traditionally been a stronghold for lifestyle technology.  Until recently, the Interactive crowd went as far as shunning the mere notion that enterprise business process or even mere productivity apps had anything to do with the social interaction of the creative minds that mingled amid the balmy spring weather of Austin. Then, a year or two ago, two things changed: the bring your own device phenomenon sparked what we now call the Arab Spring of IT, and the consumerization of IT has created a place for social apps in the workplace.

Yesterday’s session at SXSW Interactive “Enterprise Invades the Apps Playground” featured panelists, including Alex Williams from TechCrunch and Eric Lai, a Computerworld reporter-turned-corporate blogger for the telco infrastructure firm Avaya, uncovered a few truths universal to this discussion: Apps need to be dead simple.

Who has time for training? Who has time for confusion? Employees who bring their own devices to work won’t learn how to use an app that doesn’t make sense. Enterprise businesses lack developers. Do they really lack developers or a way to attract them?

Another panelist from an old-line Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) vendor threw up no less than three PowerPoint “eye-charts” that seemed to infer all developers’ need “frameworks” to bring data into apps. A fellow panelist, a developer, was made to follow building wire inspectors on a quest to recreate the data workflow of a thousand Excel spreadsheets in an app. This sounds like enterprises invading the app development world with a hardened mandate. Remember, you catch more developers with honey than with vinegar.

From the development side of things, the panelists almost seemed to solve their own problem: how to harness the app economy to drive revenue. Panelists described how the most innovative mobile enterprise initiatives aren’t coming from the C-suite – its more ground level. The CIO or IT office gets involved to support an initiative once it proves to add value to the organization.

But the discussion seems to stumble on the issue of how to get apps and their data into the hands of developers, and ultimately into workers’ devices. Williams posited correctly that apps need to be a two-way interaction, and that business data needs to be part of the fabric of the apps. The difficulty is with integrating apps into legacy systems. This is an issue that creates what Williams calls data gravity: if data were a planet, it would have a have mass, and development efforts tend to shift towards that mass. One way is to move data out into the cloud so that enterprises can more easily attract developers. Another way is to move apps closer to the center of data.

The key seems to be in federating that data so apps and their appropriate users can reach it whether inside legacy systems or in the cloud. Carepass by Aetna, one of the fine partners participating in the Circus Mashimus Lounge at SXSW, is a fine example of an enterprise creating that data gravity for the developers. The CarePass platform enables data from enterprise partners like Active Network, and startups like Food Essentials, to power apps like MoxieFit, a virtual personal trainer aimed at helping the Aetna customer, or any fitness-minded consumer, live a healthier life.

CarePass, like so many other successful enterprise app initiatives, is a lightweight API-driven platform that welcomes developers with the world-class developer onboarding, API policy and traffic management of Mashery’s API management platform, the ingenuity of healthcare leader like Aetna, and the creativity of great developers.

Enterprise IT fell on Austin like the rain on SXSW. Nothing could be more permanent as the streets of Austin become a veritable shopping mall of lounges and parties sponsored by the biggest names in sales force automation, collocation and search engine technology. It’s important to remember we are not here searching for a sea change to hitch our star to.

Developers have been building amazing apps with APIs since the start of this conference. Great enterprises are beating the app-economy curve using API platforms to get their apps to market quickly because sometimes the answer is right under our nose.