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News this morning that IBM and Apple have entered into a new partnership that “will see the two firms co-develop business-centric apps for iPhones and iPads.” Given the history of the two brands, this is big news, but given Big Blue has been out of the devices market for some time since it divested its PC business to Lenovo, it strikes me a little bit like the new that the Post Office was offering telephones again. It doesn’t mean the GPO is reborn.

The strategic intent behind the partnership, though, appears to be cracking the stubborn nut that is “enterprise apps”. Enterprise software is big business with big margins, that Apple (as it continues its metamorphosis from lifestyle brand back to computer company) wants a piece of, and IBM presumably wants to protect.

But developing mobile- and touch-centric apps isn’t just about bunging a new user interface on top of your ERP system. I wonder, to some extent, if such things will ever really exist?

Some examples.

Take “productivity” solutions – your common or garden office suite. It’s not coincidence that Microsoft, for example, have struggled to produce a touch-first version of it’s blockbuster product even for it’s own Windows 8 platform. Productivity suites are artefacts of the PC era – they rely heavily on keyboard and mouse data entry and manipulation, they often are geared to produce print or projected output (I’ve given up expecting to be able to plug my HDMI phone into a projector at an event), and quite frankly we’ve found ways in the mobile world to get around using them. Why spend hours knocking up a slide deck when you can take a few photos of a flipchart?

Take the “bung it all in” approach. Most enterprise software is based on the idea of a client that has every bit of functionality possible built in, and then various bits turned off depending on permissions, licensing and so on. That’s an efficient model when you’ve got yards of screen space (and when distribution of software and updates has been restricted on grounds of practicality and change management). This is not the way that mobile apps work: they tend to be much more focused on user requirements, smaller, and more contextual. Well, the good ones anyway. Enterprise apps aren’t just another re-skinning, they require deeper thought into how people might want to use things in specific instances.

Which brings me to the biggest issue of all – the world of touch devices and mobile apps is empowering (relatively), and driven by positive reinforcement. The world of traditional Enterprise apps tends to treat users as subservient data providers and process nodes. We have really deep emotional bonds with our mobiles… it’s sad (possibly), but true. Start buggering around with draconian enterprise software that starts barking orders, and you’re going to have quite significant cognitive dissonance amongst users – and a massive sense of intrusion.

Apps that allow people in organisations to work more effectively will arise. Some of them are there already (I keep banging on about Expensify, but it really is that good as a model for what enterprise apps could be). But the transition from legacy to the modern world is going to be slow and painful – and it’s not just a matter of a new UI.

Some pointers for what makes a valuable app in the eyes of the user? You can start by looking at the Seven Reasons to App that I developed whilst at  Microsoft (not that anyone there took any great notice, it has to be said).

There is a great gulf between enterprise technology and what we now expect from consumer services. I’ve said it before, but the traditional meaning of those two terms has switched in the past few years where “Consumer Grade” now often means the best, not the cut down and hobbled. Generating a new breed of apps in the enterprise is going to take quite some time – and it’s not a technology issue at the core. Just look at Enterprise Social Networks to see how business constrains usable technologies.

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