There's a Business App for That

This post is a follow-up from my presentation at the Business On-Demand 2010 Business Conference.

You may have heard that according to Morgan Stanley, “the mobile Internet is ramping faster than desktop Internet did, and we believe more users may connect to the Internet via mobile devices than desktop PCs within 5 years.” And as futuristic as it may sound, you might already be carrying around a device that would make Gene Roddenberry drool feel validated that his futuristic vision of the tricorder has come true.

What makes an App an App?

An App is nothing more than software running on a device, like a desktop computer or smartphone.  Traditionally, to install software, it was a complex process. Put in a disk, run a program, answer questions you don’t understand by clicking “OK” a lot. If there’s an update to the software, you download and install the patch. Then if you want to uninstall it, it is a whole process and then you have to clean out all of the garbage left behind.

But the idea behind the “App Store” is that software installation, updates, management and removal are all amazingly simple: 1-click and done. It is a very consumer-friendly process, no longer requiring a “techie” to manage or maintain the process. Apps are also often “single purpose” tools that are task oriented. “I need to do THIS so I have an App that does exactly that.” The concept isn’t new, just the technology to make it seamless from end-to-end is now widely available for average consumers at reasonable prices.

Open and Closed

When thinking about the mobile platforms, one issue that comes up is whether the platform is open or closed. Most consumers don’t quite understand this, so let me explain.

In a closed environment, there is end-to-end control of the entire system. Companies control the distribution and sale of the applications, which will be deemed “safe” or “approved” with the hope that this leads to stability (fewer crashes) and overall consistency in the user experience. I can pick up anybody’s iPhone and the experience, other than different apps, will be the same as my phone.

In an open environment, you have the ability to “tweak” or customize. Developers can create applications that do anything that the devices and operating system will support, which can lead to amazing innovation and creativity. But developer ability and code standards will run the gamut, from really great to awful. The overall experience of the device can be compromised, resulting in slowness, crashes, freezes, and restarts. And the experience from device to device and user to user will fracture as the result of different versions of the operating system and different features of devices.

Mobile Device Use Cases

What really interests me (and hopefully interests you) is precisely why a mobile device like an iPhone or BlackBerry can make your work life better: more productive, more flexible, more relaxed, etc. So let me give you the basics.

Mobile device Instead of a desktop computer – Both can effectively do the same thing, but you would rather use a mobile device.

Mobile device to Extend a desktop computer – You use the desktop computer as the primary application, but the mobile device can access information from the desktop and provides some or all of the same functionality.

Mobile device allows New Functions impossible with a desktop computer – the combination of portable, hand-held, phone, SMS, GPS/location, Internet-enabled, camera equipped, battery powered, bluetooth, WiFi, motion sensor, voice recognition, speakers, microphone, music player, push notifications, etc. provides functions in combination not easily possible with a desktop or laptop computer.

Mobile device allows a Quick Check, Convenience or Capture – checking of email, snapping photos, voice recording, anywhere access to the Internet and even getting push notifications that allow your brain to deal with the “If I knew that this was happening right now, I could resolve in 11 seconds” problem.

Time Kill Central – mobile devices have delivered tons of games which can be very fun and extremely addictive. Clearly these are not for business productivity, but sometimes you do need a mental break.

Application Categories

Now since there are close to 200,000 applications, I’ve broken things into specific categories and I just want to talk about one or two specific “Apps” in each category. There is no reasonable way that in the span of a single post I can be comprehensive, but I want to give you some starting points to go search the “App Stores” for your own favorites.

Also note that in this post I focus on the iPhone because that is what I have in my pocket at the time of this writing. However, many of the same or similar applications are available (or will be) for the Android and other platforms.

Phone Power Tools

  • Skype uses your existing data network (WiFi or 3G) to make VoIP calls. Verizon had a press release about this a couple months back and Skype is showing up on all of the mobile platforms.
  • Line2 gives you a second number for your cell phone, especially useful where your 3G signal is weak but you have available WiFi. It can turn an iPod Touch into a cell phone in a WiFi environment and with the microphone enabled earphones.
  • Free Conference Call allows you to manage conference calls, see/manage participants, etc. So if you use Free Conference Call for your conference calls, go get this app.

Productivity

  • There are a lot of task list applications. ReQall goes beyond a simple task list, rather it is a voice enabled memory aid, that will transcribe your voice, and remind you about things to do when you are at specific locations. It also helps you remember things that you might have forgotten about. See David Pogue’s video review of reQall.
  • Evernote is probably the best cross-platform digital junk drawer anywhere. The free application gives you desktop and mobile access to the same database. Evernote will scan images for text (even hand-written) and attempt to index it for search.
  • Dragon Dictation allows you to start speaking and it will convert what you say into text. You can then copy/paste into other applications.
  • ZipNote makes sending yourself an email much faster. You just open the app and type your message. It fills in a time-stamp in the subject line and pre-configures your email account information. Yes, you can do this with the built-in mail application, this just saves a bunch of steps.

Desktop to Mobile and Back

  • Quickoffice Connect Mobile Suite gives you access to your Microsoft Office documents (among others) and can connect with multiple cloud services. You can create new Word and Excel files, and open/view PowerPoint, PDF and other file types.
  • For remote desktop use, you can either go with Citrix Receiver or LogMeIn Ignition depending on your specific corporate network setup.
  • Salesforce Mobile gives you most of the goodies (dashboards, companies, contacts, calendar, lead conversion) that you would want from Salesforce in a native application.
  • Time Master + Billing + Quickbooks gets you all of the reporting, invoicing, import/export, etc. that will extend Quickbooks data to your mobile device. Remember that you won’t be looking at live data and you will have to sync each time you get back to the office. Still, you are able to track time for clients, projects and tasks and the timers keep running even when the app isn’t.
  • SplashID helps you manage your passwords, credit cards, accounts, and such in a central encrypted application. It has versions for Android, Palm, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Nokia Series 60 and desktop versions for Windows & Mac.

On the Road Again

  • If you use a car for business, Milebug should be required issue. It tracks the mileage for your trips, allows you to track different cars, save frequent trips, save presets for frequent locations and trips, and easily email reports for specific date ranges. You can include expenses related to the trips as well.
  • Hoover’s Near Here gives you location based results for standard Hoover’s search, showing potential customers right in the area. LeadTurbo does the same basic thing, but with a different database.
  • Tripit is a combination of website and mobile application. You forward your travel plans via email to TripIt and the website organizes everything for you, and the mobile application gives you access to the information plus some added goodies. They have a pro account ($70/year) with notifications and alternate flights, point tracking, and sharing with select people.
  • Yahoo Sketch-a-Search lets you draw a shape on a map and then it will show you business results in that area. You can then do a bit of filtering by categories. The application is a bit of a gimmick, but useful when in unfamiliar areas.
  • Trainboard is a simple SEPTA application that shows when trains are coming at a specific station and how late they are. Very simple to select your station using your phone’s location functionality and the train schedules work without a network connection. Trainboard does this one thing exactly right. It is simple, fast, and useful, and costs less than the price of a fare. (Please note that the developer provided me with a code so I could download this application for free in order to try it.)
  • WorldCard Mobile is a business card scanning app. Process to scan and correct works nicely (some cards scan better than others), but the awkward part is when you would use it. Imagine being in a public situation, “This is my last card…” so you quickly scan the card and then go into edit mode. Desktop versions of business card scanners allow you to do stacks and stacks and you have a full keyboard to make changes and corrections. I used WorldCard Mobile a couple of times at the beginning, but rarely find the need to use it.

Additional Resources

Double Twist (PC & Mac) gives you an iTunes experience for devices other than iPhones. It syncs music, videos, etc. and converts videos to compatible formats. It offers Amazon MP3 store support and it is free.

If you use your iPhone as much as I do, you might find that your battery doesn’t quite make it all the way the day. I always have a Mophie Juice Pack in my bag, which gives me an extra battery in the form of a case. Slip it on and it starts charging. It holds a charge for well over a month, so you don’t have to use it all of the time and worry weather you will get battery life. I especially like that I can charge it separately from the phone itself.

Since I’m on AT&T and I don’t always get good coverage (ahem). The MiFi Mobile Hotspot gives Internet connectivity to my iPhone, my laptop, and others at a conference table. Basically, you take one of the broadband connect cards but instead of connecting it via USB port, you put it on the table and up to 5 people can connect via a standard WiFi connection. I’ve used it to make Skype calls when the “map for that” wasn’t as good as hoped. There are new 4G versions from Sprint coming out over the next few months with faster connection speeds, but my MiFi has been very reliable and reasonably fast.

So, what are your favorite business apps for your smartphone?