Taptera is a startup software company making mobile apps for enterprises that focus on extending enterprises’ backend data out to iOS, Android, and HTML5 mobile devices. While they're a small startup at the moment, they actually spun out of the internal IT department at Genetech, so enterprise-level scalability, security, and reliability have been part of their focus from Day One. Last week Brian and I went down the street to meet with Taptera co-founder Dan McCall. (No relation to Dan McCall, the CEO of virtual computer.)
About the company
Dan McCall and co-founder Chris O’Connor were internal developers / cloud / mobile / product people at Genentech, where they created mobile productivity apps for in-house use. Their team was responsible for promotion as well, essentially acting as an internal startup which had to “sell” the apps to about 10,000 Genentech employees. They ended up making 30 different applications for the employees, who were standardized on corporate iPhones.
In October of 2010, McCall and O’Connor left Genentech to start Taptera. They credit their time at Genentech with giving them (1) credibility that their applications can handle enterprise-level deployment and security, and (2) experience making apps that address actual problems, instead of made-up problems that lead to useless apps. Dan explained that a lot of mobile apps have the same complete feature-sets as traditional applications, just shrunk down to fit on a mobile device. In their case, they tried to figure out what subset of functions are actually needed when on a tablet or smartphone, and also what else mobile devices could do (think location awareness) that traditional PC apps don’t have or need.
As of February 2012, Taptera has released three applications: Colleagues, Rooms, and Events.
- Colleagues is a corporate mobile directory. It has useful extra features like easy to update photos and chain-of-command information. Currently it’s only available for iOS, with an Android version promised in a month.
- Rooms simplifies reserving conference rooms within an office or corporate campus. Locate the nearest available room, reserve it, and even schedule future meetings based on room requirements, attendees, and location. The back-end plugs into Exchange and Google Calendar. What’s cool about this is that the app gives you a receipt that you can use it to kick out conference room squatters. Rooms is iOS only.
- Events includes schedules, session abstracts, speaker information, maps, and other resources; schedules can be changed on the fly and special announcements can be made with push notifications. Since there’s not really a standard format for event scheduling content, data has to be uploaded into the Events web console manually. Events is available for iOS; an HTML 5 version (compatible with just about any device) is on its way.
These applications utilize cloud services from Taptera, referred to as MOE (Mobile Optimization Engine), which reach into corporate resources via a verity of different ways (LDAP, AD, etc.) Authentication is done via SAML or OAuth, and users are automatically re-authenticated in the background each time the app connects. If the authorization fails, or if a company eliminates a user’s access, the application data on the device is wiped. The applications themselves are free to download, but without access to a corporate environment, the app is blank and does nothing. The payment point is at the corporate level, on a “per user per month basis,” (or “per user per event” for the Events app).
All of the current applications allow customized corporate branding and are controlled via web-based admin consoles.
Now that most organizations are starting to recognize the utility of mobile devices, the next step in many cases is providing applications that make those devices useful. The problem is that these apps don’t build themselves, and neither do the infrastructures on which they run. Taptera is building apps that can be easily customized and used by a lot corporations. Nobody writes their own mail client, for example, and there are whole ranges of other types of apps that corporations should be able to buy off the shelf, too.
Some of Taptera’s apps could be a hard sell for organizations, though, because while Colleagues and Rooms would make life easier for a lot of users, the niches they fill probably aren’t the highest priority for many companies. They might be a better sell to individual users, but then changes to the back-end model would be necessary. The Events app has a much more discrete use case—I’m thinking back to when Brian and Gabe had a flash-based web app created for the BriForum conference guides. Future offerings from Taptera are going to lean in the direction of sales and CRM-related applications, areas that could be a more easily justifiable expense in many companies.
Dan offered a soundbite in our meeting (and I’m paraphrasing a bit here), “We curate the experience that users want on their mobile apps with corporate back end.” That pretty much sums up what anybody developing mobile applications for enterprise should have in mind. But will companies keep on trying to build them on their own, claiming that they have to have the apps use their own infrastructure to be secure? And this is just for companies that already have mobile app strategies; what about the ones that don’t?