Apperian Readying “Enterprise App Store” for iPhones and iPads

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In the 15 months since its launch, Boston-based Apperian has won a reputation as a leading creator of sophisticated business-to-consumer iPhone apps such as Timberland Expedition, Intuit’s TurboTax TaxCaster, and American Greetings’ e-card app. But the startup didn’t set out to be just another mobile app studio: the real vision of founder and CEO Chuck Goldman, a former Apple exec, has always been to bring the power of the iPhone (and now the iPad) to the enterprise and business-to-business worlds. And this summer, his company is going to make the leap.

Apperian won’t stop building custom apps for clients, “because that’s such a great learning environment for us,” says Goldman. But at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference in California this June, Apperian will launch a software platform meant to help big companies create, deploy, and manage iPhone and iPad apps on their own. Called the Enterprise Application Services Environment, or EASE, the platform could fill a huge gap left by Apple—namely, the lack of any framework to help companies experiment with internal applications for the iPhone and iPad. It could also put Apperian in position to dominate the nascent market for enterprise iPhone/iPad application development tools.

Timberland Expeditions Splash Screen

Goldman says EASE will supply software components that Apple doesn’t put into its own software development kits—for example, “connectors” that let apps tap into enterprise databases. (Imagine, to use a hypothetical example, a FedEx iPad app that lets drivers access the company’s package-tracking database wirelessly.) But just as important, EASE will provide a way to distribute apps to employee’s iPhones or iPads, and keep them updated once they’re installed.

Right now, there’s no way within Apple’s iTunes ecosystem to do those things. Getting enterprise apps onto iPhones is an entirely manual process—which is obviously a problem for companies that might want to deploy the devices to thousands of employees. Goldman says EASE, which will be sold to companies on a subscription basis for about $2 to $3 per device per month, automates the distribution process by communicating with each employee’s copy of iTunes, in effect creating a kind of enterprise app store.

Once EASE is launched, Goldman says, Apperian will turn its attention to raising a proper Series A funding round. So far, the company has been subsisting on $1.5 million in seed funding from Lexington, MA-based CommonAngels, supplemented by $1.2 million in services revenue from its first year of app-development work. “We’ve been using the services business to go out and learn the market and be talking with the big brands,” says Goldman. “That was always the strategy. Now we’re probably looking to raise $3 million to $5 million, in July or August.”

On Wednesday, Goldman walked me through the details of the EASE platform and the company’s vision for the future of enterprise applications on Apple’s mobile devices. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Xconomy: Most people see the iPhone as a consumer device. What makes it attractive for business?

Chuck Goldman: It’s true, the more enterprise-level, transformative apps haven’t really hit the mainstream yet. When I say transformative, I mean moving the business process to a mobile platform. We’ve started doing that with clients like Progressive in the area of mobile claims processing and roadside assistance with AAA. But the next wave of apps, I think, is going to come from mobilizing sales forces, from internal apps that transform the way workers work. But the first challenge is device management. You’re seeing companies like Trust Digital and Mobile Iron focus on that, but no one has really focused specifically on the best-practice app store environment. That’s why we have chosen to focus in on internal business app stores.

X: What does EASE do, exactly?

CG: EASE does two things. It makes it easy for IT [departments] to create, deploy, and manage mobile applications on the iPhone, and next on Android. The second thing is that it gives end users that familiar experience that they have with the App Store. Apple has proven that the App Store model for mobile distribution is the right model. We see EASE as the best of both worlds—tools for IT, and empowering the mobile user with a familiar interface and an authorized way to get access to in-house apps that they need for their business.

X: Okay, talk about each one of those things in turn. First of all, creating in-house iPhone applications. Why can’t enterprise developers do this using Apple’s existing iPhone software development kit (SDK)?

CG: Apple gives you a pretty robust SDK. However, the tools to connect to enterprise data aren’t there. So there is still a lot of custom database connectivity that needs to be built. Whether you have Oracle or Sybase or your database is Web-enabled through XML or JSON (JavaScript Object Notation), we give you connectors to connect to your enterprise data. We also give you a social media kit, so that if you want to seamlessly pull in Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn, we have enabled those. Plus there is no reporting or analytics built into Apple’s SDK, so we are building an analytics engine meant for enterprise IT.

We also have a way to show videos, so that before people can even have access to the “install” button, they have to watch the video or answer questions correctly. That way companies can say that everybody who downloads a mobile app has been trained on the content. So the Apperian SDK—or what we call the Apperian App Kit, to avoid confusion with the iPhone SDK—-will give enterprise app developers the ability to include things like advanced database connectors, advanced reporting and analytics, and training modules.

X: So you still need to be a real iPhone developer and understand the iPhone SDK to build apps with the Apperian App Kit.

CG: It’s not one of these drag-and-drop, create-your-own-enterprise-app things. You still need to use the Apple SDK. But we’ll give you enterprise tools that sit on top of the Apple SDK to make the apps more robust and more manageable.

X: What about the app store part? Consumers can only get apps onto the iPhone through the iTunes App Store, unless they jailbreak their phones. I’m assuming that’s not what you’re talking about. So how did you persuade Apple to let you set up separate enterprise app stores?

CG: We’re not literally building a parallel app store to Apple’s App Store. There are actually three ways to deploy an iPhone app. There’s ad hoc deployment of up to 100 users, which is the method used by developers and is used mostly for testing. The second way is called enterprise distribution, which is the same as ad hoc distribution, however, it’s for an unlimited amount of devices. That runs the same way as ad hoc distribution, which is a pain. You have to e-mail the IPA file, which is the actual app, and you have to e-mail the provisioning file, which is a separate document, and both of them have to be manually dragged into iTunes from your e-mail, and then you synch your iPhone. There is no way, currently, to do things like automatically install these apps into people’s copies of iTunes, or to remove just a single app if you want to deprovision it.

In EASE, we give IT departments the ability to push apps directly into people’s iTunes accounts. They just show up, and they always have the most recent version, and we do reporting and analytics to make sure they have it installed and it’s working. That’s not only easier for everyone—the other thing that’s important about that is that enterprise apps can live right alongside people’s personal apps. When companies say, “We’re giving you iPhones, but you can only have the apps we’re going to give you,” we don’t think that’s going to fly. It’s important to give the end user the best of both worlds.

X: So you’re not talking about installing apps over-the-air the way you can with apps from the iTunes App Store.

CG: Correct. You still have to synch your phone to get EASE apps. That’s a good thing and a bad thing. A lot of these apps are pretty large, so it would take a long time to download them over the air. But it’s also a challenge, because some people very rarely synch their iPhone. But we feel there’s enough value in EASE to eliminate the burden on IT. Right now, to distribute an app to 5,000 or even 500 phones and manage that process, when you’re managing multiple files and multiple versions, is a nightmare. Any company who has been an early pioneer in developing enterprise iPhone apps is really in pain right now.

X: It sounds like this would also help small app development studios who are managing just 100 copies of an app.

CG: We actually are going to seed EASE to at least a couple hundred or a couple thousand developers so that they can use it for their ad hoc builds. Developers like Apperian are suffering through the same issue on a smaller scale. We think we can sell it to developers as a monthly subscription for Basecamp-type pricing, maybe $20 a month.

X: What’s to stop Apple from coming along and deciding that it’s suddenly interested in enterprise applications, and that it’s going to introduce the same tools that you’re talking about?

CG: That’s a good question. That’s what everybody asks us. And my current response is, historically Apple hasn’t done that. Take a company like Thursby Software. They have created a product called ADmitMac. It’s an Active Directory plugin for Mac OS X. Active Directory is the way most PCs connect to their mail and calendaring servers and all their other applications. There was really no solution in Mac OS X [for connecting to Active Directory], and the reason is that it’s an enterprise feature. Consumers don’t give a crap—they aren’t connecting their home Macs to corporate systems. It wasn’t on Apple’s radar, so they just didn’t do it. But Bill Thursby has made millions of dollars developing enterprise features that aren’t included in Apple’s core operating system. Apple actually does have an Active Directory plugin now for Mac OS X, but it’s not nearly as robust as ADmitMac. That’s the best illustration I can give you.

X: Where do you think that particular blind spot comes from? Is it from Steve Jobs’ fixation on the user experience for consumers?

CG: He’s opportunistic for enterprise, but he’s not focused on it. He has said that to me directly in meetings. The iPhone was launched as a consumer device, and if enterprises happen to buy millions of them, that’s great, but that doesn’t mean Apple is all of a sudden going to create enterprise functionality, because it’s not on their radar. That said, you never know when you’re doing business with Apple. They could take a left or a right and come out with their own version of EASE. We are making a bet with this platform that they won’t.

X: How does the iPad change everything you’ve been talking about?

CG: It doesn’t change things, it just accentuates the issue. You see more and more people wanting to buy the iPad for things like their sales forces, product demonstrations, collaboration. You’re seeing a lot of stuff in pharma and healthcare, with people looking at it for things like electronic medical records. You’re seeing a lot of really creative applications for it for enterprise usage. So it’s just accentuating the fact that there needs to be a better way to manage apps on these devices.

X: If all goes well with the launch of EASE, what will things look like for Apperian a year from now?

CG: We hope to work with some of these huge brands that we’ve built apps for already and who are now thinking about deploying in-house apps. We hope they are all using EASE and that we have a couple hundred thousand happy users and happy IT departments managing their applications.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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