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IBM MobileFirst for iOS apps rolling out, with Big Blue in charge

The new IBM iOS apps are trickling out with IBM taking the lead on selling, managing and tying the apps back into existing enterprise systems.

Organizations interested in the new IBM MobileFirst for iOS applications can't simply download them through Apple's App Store -- they must deal with Big Blue.

The Apple/IBM partnership is finally bearing fruit, with the companies unveiling the first 10 enterprise iOS applications exclusively for iPhones and iPads. As anticipated, the IBM MobileFirst for iOS applications are aimed at specific verticals, including banking and financial markets, travel and transportation, retail, insurance, telecommunications and government.

IBM will sell the applications to customers, with IBM working on customization to fit organizational needs and management.

The applications introduced this week focus on productivity for end users in the above industries. Among the apps are: Advise & Grow and Trusted Advice, two iPad apps for financial institutions for accessing client data on-the-go; Passenger+, an iPad app for flight attendants to pull up passenger information instantly on the device; Retention, where insurance agents can keep up on client policies on iPhones and iPads; and Incident Aware, an iPhone app for law enforcement and public safety personnel providing real-time information on incidents.

Several large companies are already on board with the applications, including Citigroup, Inc. and Air Canada, IBM said.

The applications come amid speculation about Apple's future as an enterprise player and whether it can provide the support needed for businesses going forward. However, IBM, with its long history in the enterprise, is taking the lead on support and management for the applications.

"Despite Apple's strength in consumer [markets], it's not at all clear they are necessarily going to win in enterprise and they need these kinds of efforts to help achieve that," said Bob O'Donnell, founder and chief analyst at TECHnalysis Research LLC in Foster City, Calif.

If heavily adopted, experts think the apps could have significant impact within these industries and beyond. For example, the Expert Tech telecommunications industry app gives field service technicians inventory, mapping and traffic information for their daily trips, and techs can access specs, diagnostics and video tutorials for talking with customers.

Despite Apple's strength in consumer, it's not at all clear they are necessarily going to win in enterprise.
Bob O'Donnellanalyst, TECHnalysis Research

There's always been an opportunity for mobile developers to create a platform similar to what FedEx and UPS have on custom hardware devices for delivery personnel, said Michael Oh, founder of Tech Superpowers, an IT managed service provider and Apple reseller in Boston, of the apps.

"That [application] impacts hundreds of thousands of industries," Oh said. "This is a platform they can essentially draw upon to coordinate all their delivery activities."

As organizations consider building their own custom mobile applications, Apple getting in the middle of the fray could be an important step, O'Donnell said.

"It's critically important for Apple to get that support in the enterprise, because people are building a lot of custom mobile apps," O'Donnell said. "They take a long time to build, and there are a number of challenges."

How to get the new IBM/Apple apps

To acquire the applications, an organization must agree to a contract with IBM. It can then purchase iPads or iPhones directly from IBM, as the original deal with Apple made IBM a global Apple reseller, through its Supply, Activate and Manage program. IBM will work with organizations to tailor those applications to existing systems.

The applications won't be available through Apple's App Store because there may be some differences in back-end systems that need special configuration, on which IBM pledges to work with customers, said Phil Buckellew, vice president of IBM MobileFirst.

IBM is also hooked in with Apple's Device Enrollment Program for when a customer purchases new devices with the IBM MobileFirst for iOS apps. When the devices arrive at an organization, an activation sequence starts once the device is first turned on, and the devices are automatically provisioned with the applications and settings.

For companies with existing corporate or employee-owned devices, the process includes working further with IBM on back-end systems integration.

The push for the iOS apps could be a way for IBM to get customers in the door for its full MobileFirst offerings and other services, said Jack Gold, analyst and principal at J. Gold Associates in Northborough, Mass.

"IBM [can] link this in with their services organization, and I think that's really what was driving this anyway, to leverage professional services," Gold said. "This is where they make a whole lot of money."

The IBM MobileFirst for iOS solutions will be offered a per device, per month subscription model billed annually, with volume discounts available and custom bidding processes as needed for special terms or volumes. The applications can be bought individually. IBM declined to disclose how much the apps will cost, as they are sold on a contract-by-contract basis.

Senior executive editor Ed Scannell contributed to this report.

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After Apple and IBM announced a partnership last summer, organizations interested in the new IBM MobileFirst for iOS applications can now access the first collection.

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