Mass-market apps currently offer users cutting-edge experiences. Yet the range aimed at businesses lags behind. This gap could soon be reduced thanks to Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). Thomas Bompaire (E11) decrypts the situation for us.
The omnipresence of the mobile phone in our personal lives is now well documented: an IFOP study from 2013 already showed 42% of French people were dependent on their phones – a figure that shot up to 78% among the under-25s.
Few professionals, however, are able to use their mobiles as much in their jobs. While there are 1.21 million apps in the Appstore (as Apple says, “There’s an app for that!”) - all competing elegantly and inventively to seduce the mass market - those aimed at businesses or developed internally by companies are conspicuous for their lack of variety and low quality. Not destined for use by hundreds of millions of people, they don’t have the same resources spent on them as platforms such as Spotify or Whatsapp.
Closing the Gap at Record Speed
The technological innovations we’re experiencing as individuals (or rather consumers) are no longer limited to the mobile: connected bathroom scales or lighting, an astronomy course in augmented reality, 3D infographics… These devices are invading our everyday lives, gradually breaking down the historical barrier between B2C and B2B; between digital natives and businesses with Windows XP. We are increasingly surrounded by unavoidable, transversal new technologies, designed for all uses and adapted to large scales to the point where they naturally permeate business processes and methods.
Evidence of this includes low-frequency networks like Sygfox, that make it possible to deploy, at low cost, autonomous connected objects over a period of years. These are going to have an impact not only via the IT department for reporting tools, but also on the everyday lives of workers whose very jobs are going to change. At the CES trade show, Docapost - a subsidiary of the French postal service La Poste - officially announced the launch of Domino, making it possible to ask for a postman to come directly to a mailbox to pick up a parcel to be sent.
The Problem of Change
The context in which individuals and businesses operate is very different. Companies have used a complex variety of computer tools for many years (ERP, IT infrastructure, etc.), deployed company-wide and managing huge volumes of data with strict security requirements – the famous "legacy" inherited from previous years. They are necessarily heavy systems and extremely complex to change, firstly because, as Patrick Arnoux, editor-in-chief at Le Nouvel Économiste says: “The patterns of impressive IT machinery they have invested so much in – the high inertia “ocean liners” of ERP, CRM and Consort – are often wrong-footed by the agility of all the new tools used by marketing managers, who are in direct contact with customer’s demands and new practices: tablets, smartphones and social networks.”
Even after overcoming human resistance we don’t suddenly move from one technology to another. The old tools serve as a reference when innovative tools are being integrated, providing an IT bridge to the business. Perhaps they will evolve considerably in the coming years, migrating into the cloud or changing format, but by opening up to third-party applications they will remain useful to companies. Since 2014, SAP Hana, the latest version of the leading ERP, has also been available as Saas and is a leader in its store for third-party apps accessible to all its customers.
Another specific feature is that the weight of existing tools is related to the nature of business needs, more demanding than individuals when it comes to security and data structuring. The simplification and agility promised by digital in business has its limits: the solutions initially developed for the mass market can only be used in professional world if a number of adjustments are made. Business software always demands greater precautions than a generic app.
Bridging the Gap Between the Two Worlds
Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) provide a natural link between current digital innovations and existing IT infrastructures. An API is a native or additional software portal providing agnostic access to the data used by the software. Essential building blocks for web developments for years (there are already 14,000 APIs available), APIs are now featuring strongly in management software. George Gallegos, the CEO of Jitterbit - which sells a solution for creating and easily managing APIs in existing software - may be biased, but he puts it clearly: “Managed APIs are the new building blocks of digital business.”
These connectors between endogenous and exogeneous data, allowing all authorised third-party applications read-write interaction with business data, have now opened up many possibilities by allowing the use of any type of technology to respond to business problems. And this is the real issue for the next few years in business. Crédit Agricole’s initiative to give its partner developers entirely anonymous, secure access to its customers’ banking data through the Crédit Agricole Store illustrates this perfectly: absolute openness is possible provided it is controlled.
The tools used to manage these new IT building blocks in business already exist. For example, Apigee promotes itself as an API management platform for businesses, completing the transformation of structures that were born on the web, and adopted by companies. They promise plenty of freedom for invention in the tools needed for business innovation in the years to come.
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