Mobile playbook: Building an agency app store

When it comes to mobile initiatives, agencies cannot afford to ignore the importance of mobile apps.

Gartner, a  market research and consulting firm, predicts that mobile devices will account for 83 percent of all spending on end-user devices by 2017, with software seeing the biggest increase in spending in that category.

The biggest chunk of that will go to mobile device management (MDM) and mobile application management (MAM), but agencies should not underestimate the funding needed for apps and app development. In fact, Forrester Research estimates that the U.S. government’s largest spending category this year will be apps.

As mobile apps play a larger and larger role in mobile initiatives, many organizations are likely to consider creating app stores, to provide a central place in which employees can download approved apps, whether developed in-house or by third parties. A previous Gartner report found that one in four enterprises will have their own app stores by 2017.

Part of what makes an app store so appealing to IT managers is that it introduces a measure of control over the mobile environment, says Jack Gold, an IT consultant and founder of J. Gold Associates. “I am in control. I get to control what’s there. I get to vet the apps, choosing what’s attractive for my agency from a security, data access, and connectivity perspective,” he says.

MDM and MAM offerings are essential to maintaining that control, making it possible to block downloads from third-party app stores. Still, agencies also should require employees to sign a user agreement that spells out the consequences if they download unapproved apps.

But app stores have other benefits as well. For agencies providing commercial apps, the app store makes it easier to garner costs savings based on economies of scale.

An app store also makes it easier for the IT department to track mobile app usage – what employees and constituents download, what they like, and what isn’t being used at all. This can lead to big improvements of productivity since users can find the apps they need to do their jobs, and, when vetted correctly, those apps can help improve offline workflow.

Keep options open
However, the control that comes with an app store has its downside: Employees might end up feeling too constrained by the offered to them. The result? Bad security.

The problem is that users are familiar with commercial app stores that have millions of choices, says Tyler Shields, a senior analyst at Forrester Research. If the agency app store not only has fewer choices but the wrong choices – for example, the right app for the wrong platform – they might be tempted to jailbreak their devices, introducing new security risks.

With that in mind, IT managers must be careful to build an app store that supports all of the mobile devices that employees are using. This can be challenging in a bring-your-own-device environment, given the range of platforms that might be used. In that case, it might be worthwhile to analyze user data to see which devices are accessing the network.

Another option is to provide a standard process by which users can request that apps be added to the store.

“It shouldn’t take 12 months, either,” says Gold. “Best case, the apps should be vetted by IT and added to the store within 6 to 12 hours or so, but at the very least it should happen within days.”

At the same time, there should be some type of gated access to the store that makes it possible to limit access to certain apps by location, department or individual requirements, Gold says.