by Lisa Hoover

New iPhone Business Apps: Designing for Usefulness

Aug 25, 20085 mins

Two months after the launch of Apple's App Store few companies have created business-class apps. Find out what it takes to create iPhone software that takes advantage of the environment--and why at least one company says it's not worth the bother.

When Apple launched its new App Store earlier this summer, the assumption was that scads of businesses would develop applications for their iPhone-toting customers. Although there are more than 60 apps in the App Store’s Business category, virtually no big-name companies have bothered to cough up one of their own. Since Apple plans to make at least 40 million iPhones in the next year, many of which will no doubt end up being used in the workplace, what’s the holdup?

Nick Halsey, vice president of marketing at business intelligence (BI) vendor Jaspersoft, says it’s simply not worth the bother. “Our business users are using Safari to deliver JasperReports to them on their iPhone. While the effort to write the 100 lines of Java code to build an iPhone app is minimal, it’s just not needed.”

Halsey says Jaspersoft would be willing to create an iPhone app in response to customer demand, but there hasn’t actually been any yet. However, he says it’s likely that someone from within the user community will choose to make and submit an app on his own “as a fun project.”

Chuck Dietrich, VP of Salesforce Mobile, says his company,, has a different take on the usefulness of iPhone apps. Realizing that mobile professionals won’t want to take the time to haul out a laptop and boot it up simply to look up a customer’s order history, Salesforce Mobile provides the same information—and more—with less hassle.

Before launching its app, the company prioritized feedback and ideas from the user community to develop one that includes more than 60 percent of the features customers want most. While users can still access client information via the iPhone’s native browser, Salesforce Mobile is a targeted app designed specifically for the mobile professional. “[It] allows iPhone users to access Salesforce CRM applications and more than 70,000 custom applications right from their iPhone,” says Dietrich.

Dietrich sees iPhone apps as part of the natural evolution of mobile devices in the workplace. “From a historic standpoint, the mobile revolution began in the ’90s with the mass adoption of mobile phones as a primary means of communication. Soon, mobile e-mail became a way of life in the enterprise. As consumers and professionals became more familiar with mobile devices, and as mobile devices became more like mobile laptops, end users increasingly desired and expected to be able to do everything from the mobile devices that they could do from their desks.”

BI firm Oracle also couldn’t pass up an opportunity to design an app specifically for the iPhone. Oracle Business Indicators lets users access their company’s business performance information and manipulate the data based on what’s most convenient for them.

Lenley Hensarling, general vice president of application development at Oracle, says, “It’s not meant to replace a dashboard and analytical apps that have a whole bunch of drilldowns, but rather to give you handy access to core sets of metrics. We wanted to make usage and availability ubiquitous, and let users tailor the information to exactly what they want to see.”

Indicators also makes use of the iPhone’s native tools. “Since we support [the iPhone’s] alerting mechanisms, you don’t have to go hunting for information. You’ll get alerted when data crosses a threshold that you or someone else has set.”

Although Apple is famously picky about who gets access to the iPhone Software Developer Kit (SDK), Hensarling says developing an iPhone app was easy as pie. “The cool thing is that you’re actually developing in Cocoa and the Mac OS environment, so in terms of the development environment, it’s very mature and complete.” He says they also never felt constrained during the development process because rather than try to shoehorn an app made for the desktop onto the iPhone, the team instead built Oracle Business Indicators from the ground up.

Salesforce’s Dietrich agrees that building an iPhone app is a smooth process. “Thanks to the iPhone’s robust development environment, we were able to develop, test and deliver Salesforce Mobile for the iPhone, all in less than three months,” he notes. In fact, the process was so painless, the company plans to develop additional apps in the coming months. “ and Apple will continue to work closely to iterate and expand the breadth of functionality of Salesforce Mobile for the iPhone to expand the ways that enterprises can use Salesforce CRM and applications to improve the way they work.”

Still, Jaspersoft’s Halsey remains unconvinced. He says there is a greater demand for Web apps that can be accessed anywhere, regardless of device or browser. He points to the growing trend toward cloud computing as evidence. “What’s more interesting to us in the enterprise, and where we see customer demand, is for Web 2.0 tools for reporting and analysis as well as for collaborating on making BI tools better,” says Halsey.