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Deciding whether to build or buy enterprise mobile apps isn't easy

Applications are the centerpiece of mobility, but should you develop them in house, purchase existing apps or modify third-party apps? Each method has its pros and cons.

Applications are the driving force behind the mobile explosion in the consumer technology market, and they hold the power to do the same in the business world. Unfortunately, deploying enterprise mobile apps -- beyond the basics, such as email and calendar apps -- is a daunting task.

Organizations can develop their own applications, but mobile development requires unique skills and significant investments. Publicly available apps have a lower barrier to adoption, but they present their own challenges when it comes to management, security and licensing. And because they're built for mass audiences, they may not meet every organization's specific needs. Various hybrid approaches have also emerged to help businesses deploy customized apps with their existing resources.

Deciding whether to build or buy enterprise mobile apps doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing companywide decision. If your business has a unique product management workflow, for example, it may make sense to develop your own app from the ground up to meet its specific requirements. But if your business has fairly typical employee collaboration needs, there's no shortage of those types of apps available, and it would be easier to buy and deploy one instead of reinventing the wheel.

Builder beware

Difficulty in finding skilled mobile developers is the top roadblock to releasing enterprise apps.

When organizations need to mobilize a legacy application or business process, the first inclination is often to build it themselves. Executives might task in-house developers with creating a mobile app, or they may consider hiring an outside firm. Before going down either of these routes, business leaders should ask two important questions: Is there a publicly available app with the capabilities we need? And if not, do we have the necessary resources to build such an app?

There are plenty of business-focused apps in the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. No matter how unique business leaders think their requirements are, it's worth doing some research to see if there's an app out there that meets them. Even if a publicly available app doesn't seem to be an exact match, it may be worth exploring. The best mobile apps use streamlined workflows with more user-friendly interfaces than traditional enterprise applications; it may look like they don't have required features when they're actually putting those features to use in better ways.

Still, there are times when customized apps are truly required. Organizations that don't have in-house iOS or Android developers will face significant challenges here, because demand for mobile developers is sky-high -- as is the cost of putting their skills to work.

Difficulty in finding skilled mobile developers is the top roadblock to releasing enterprise apps in a timely manner, according to a 2014 report by mobile app development platform provider Appcelerator and research firm IDC. More than 41% of IT decision makers and 34% of developers named it their biggest challenge. Estimates of how much it costs to develop your own app vary wildly and depend on a number of factors, but they range from tens of thousands of dollars to more than $100,000. Organizations can expect to pay even more when hiring an outside development firm.

Public app challenges

It's significantly easier to purchase existing apps and deploy them to employees, but that approach is not without its own difficulties.

An organization that develops its own apps can build in hooks to its mobile application management (MAM) software, allowing IT to control and secure the app and its data. With publicly available apps, however, that power is out of the company's hands. Some public apps are compatible with multiple MAM products, some only work with one MAM product and others don't work with any at all.

A company can always use mobile device management to apply some level of security and control over the smartphones and tablets to which the app is deployed. But for those that need the more granular protection that MAM provides, using publicly available apps can cause major frustration.

Hybrid options and the future

A hybrid approach to enterprise mobile apps may help organizations meet their customization needs without expending as many resources. Some enterprise software vendors offer partially pre-built apps that perform certain common tasks or are tailored for users in specific industries.

Businesses can buy these apps, complete them with their specific requirements in mind and then deploy them to users. This approach still takes some development resources, but it can provide organizations the jump-start they need to get into the mobile app game. The software vendor may even offer post-purchase development assistance to further lessen the blow.

Application refactoring presents another option. Refactoring takes legacy Windows and Web apps and allows developers, IT administrators or even end users to transform them with mobile-friendly interfaces -- sometimes with little to no coding required.

In the future, organizations may even be able to customize and add features to publicly available apps through the use of containerization. Today, containerization is primarily a technology for adding new management and security features to apps, but MAM vendors are looking at expanding its capabilities. If these vendors can solve the technology- and licensing-related challenges of containerizing public apps, it could open up a whole new world of possibilities.

There are many options for bringing mobile applications into the enterprise. They all present challenges, which organizations must find a way to overcome. Apps are too crucial to future business success to do otherwise.

Next Steps

What's the best way to acquire third-party apps?

Setting standards for in-house development

Why enterprises are turning to MADPs

Codeless MADP provides an app dev shortcut

This was last published in June 2015

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Does your organization develop its own apps or acquire them from third-party vendors?
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We experimented with both approaches, and ultimately decided that developing in house, even with the needed ramp up time, was more economical than outsourcing to another entity.
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As a software vendor, we use our own RMAD tool to enable business folks to build their own use cases into mobile apps, self sufficiently. I don't think anyone will have enough mobile development resources on hand this decade.
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We actually do both. We have a large number of third-party applications spread out across the enterprise, but we also have a large number of applications and services that we’ve developed. For us, the driving factor is not so much cost, although it is a consideration, but rather which solution will better provide what we need.
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I've seen both. Maintenance is the factor that must be strongly considered. One thing is to deploy a vendor product, another is to acquire the code base and maintain it.
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