At Genentech, now that the apps have proved viable and the development platforms are maturing, usability is becoming a key area of focus, says O’Connor. “We started treating employees as consumers, involving them extensively in the design and creating a tight feedback loop,” he says. One redesigned app, for procurement, has reduced the number of steps in the work flow by 36 percent and shaved 80 seconds off the time required to complete a transaction, cutting it roughly in half.
Because mobile devices are always with you and know where you are, applications designed specifically for these devices can do much more than just replace desktop apps. To see how businesses can use such technologies to increase revenue, look at OpenTable, a San Francisco-based company that provides free, online restaurant reservations for diners at 15,000 restaurants worldwide. In the 18 months since the launch of its mobile site, the company has seated more than five million diners through mobile reservations, generating $250 million in revenues for its restaurant customers.
Building mobile applications for enterprises is not the gargantuan project it was a decade ago, when “mobile middleware” companies burned through hundreds of millions of VC dollars. Boston-based Apperian, for example, has raised just $1.5 million to create and launch a simple set of development tools. Founder Chuck Goldman says many enterprise apps can be developed in less than a week. One client, Progressive Insurance, created mobile apps for accident and claims reporting in roughly that time.
The streamlined app development process is a boon for Genentech, which has been forced to cut costs since being acquired by Swiss pharma giant Roche amid the global business slowdown of early 2009. In the early going, a team of six people spent about one-third of their work time over five months developing the On the Road app, for a total cost of more than $100,000. But as the company has developed more of its own apps, the process has gotten faster and cheaper. An application it built for booking conference rooms, integrated with Google Calendar, took just two weeks and $13,000.
Mark Lowenstein is managing director of Mobile Ecosystem, a Boston-based consulting and advisory services firm.