This TechCrunch column about the differences between B2C and B2B start-ups reminded me of one issue that I’ve been pondering lately, as part of our mobile application storefronts research. (Yes, I rather dogmatically keep calling them app or application storefronts and not simply “app stores”, just to distinct the term from Apple’s, eh, app store. And yes, it’s a mouthful and I sometimes do feel quite apologetic about it.) Very much the same difference – the lesser opportunity for going viral if you’re a B2B player, and the correspondingly greater need to invest in sales and marketing – applies to enterprise mobile apps in comparison to their consumer-facing counterparts. A large part of this bottleneck is related to the discovery loop of the apps, and specifically in the sense that enterprise apps still lack proper go-to marketplaces to distribute them. The consumer apps tend to have it much easier, since they can benefit from the halo effect that comes from all those eyeballs that are drawn to browse App Store (sic), Google Play, and the others.
Naturally, the two worlds are unlikely to ever fully converge, but I do believe that the presumably more favourable dynamics of app discovery should give a substantial boost to B2B start-ups over the next few years. Either the main storefronts themselves will equip themselves with adequate B2B counters, or some of the leading enterprise-software vendors (whose own sales would benefit from a more vibrant developer ecosystem) will help the developers to work around the bottleneck.
Of the latter group, SAP is one major player that is already trying to address the discovery gap, having added the mobile element to its one-stop SAP Store in late 2011. The store itself is deployed as a third-party app that can be downloaded from the OS vendors’ own native storefronts, and it is essentially meant to serve as a curated channel to discover apps that have been developed by SAP and its partners. I’ve been testing the store app’s Android variant during the past couple of weeks, and its user interface feels rather well-thought. The included apps, which currently total over 200, can be filtered by the provider, the industry (e.g., “Aerospace and Defense” or “Wholesale Distribution”), and the business area (e.g., “Corporate Strategy and Sustainability” or “Supply Chain Management”). Recommendation methods familiar from consumer-facing app storefronts have been used, too (e.g., “Most Popular,” “What’s New,” and “Recommended”). Importantly, the apps can be – at least to some extent – trialed before downloading, and the system also offers an option to send a contact request from each app’s marketing page directly to the publisher. This is much needed in an enterprise environment, given that B2B apps are often distributed through volume purchases.
As I’ve discussed in this recent ABI Insight [clients only], the likeliest, and the most beneficial way forward, however is that the OS vendors’ own storefronts will, over time, become better at handling B2B apps. Apple took a small but important step when its App Store enabled volume purchases for enterprises and educational institutions in mid-2011. While this helps with enabling business models based on volume purchases, it does not address most of the other enterprise-specific needs, including the discovery aspect. Google, on the other hand, has had its hands full with making Google Play appealing enough even for consumers, so its storefront has not given much of thought to the enterprise customer. And the truth is that these two players alone, due to their strong grip on the high-end device market, currently determine to a great extent what is possible and what is not. Still, the case for streamlining the distribution process is going to be so strong that I’d be surprised if we eventually didn’t see some form of parallel B2B storefront universes (say, “Enterprise App Store” and “Google Work” for the said two) emerging to fill the gaps.