Cloud Business Apps

A New Way to Shop for Small Business Applications

Christophe Primault
By
Published on 23 December 2011
Found in Tips & Lists

Do you need a new application to help you run your business more effectively?

Maybe you’re searching for a better way to manage projects online, or need to find a good online collaboration tool to help market your business more effectively.

But where do you start? While you can do a Google search, the results are likely to overwhelming. How can you tailor your search to quickly develop a short list of solutions to more thoroughly evaluate, and improve the odds that you’ll unearth the right solution for your business?

App stores orbusiness application marketplaces provide you with a new way to discover, learn about and purchase applications.

This post is based on a survey of 472 small businesses from the SMB Group, the 2011 SMB Routes to Market Study, which zeros in on how small businesses discover, learn about, and evaluate online software.

There is an App Store for that

You’re probably already familiar with app stores for your iPhone or Android, but there are also many that focus on providing business solutions for small and medium businesses (SMBs).  These app stores can help streamline the shopping and selection process, providing a one-stop shop to search for, try and buy applications.

Leading technology vendors, such as Google or Intuit, often build and serve as the anchor tenant for app stores. These marquee companies typically have a strong brand and a large customer base–but no one vendor will ever have the time or expertise to build every possible application that a customer might want. However, they can attract developers to build and integrate complementary applications to sell to their large customer bases.

How can App Stores help your business

App stores can help to streamline your search and selection process for new applications. App stores categorize applications by function, industry and other criteria, and offer user generated ratings and reviews to help guide your decision-making process. Some provide chat areas for Q&A and expert advice, as well as information about things such as migration from older applications, integration with applications you already use, and the pros and cons of different types of delivery models.

Most stores feature cloud-based solutions that you can trial for free and purchase in a flexible, pay-as-you go model, and usually offer free apps as well. In many cases, they feature single-sign on access to all of the apps that are in the store. This means you don’t need to keep track of lots of passwords, and can navigate more easily between applications.

Several stores offer software downloads for applications that you can run on your own PC or server in addition to cloud-based solutions.

How small businesses use App Stores

Two years in a row, in 2010 an 2011, the SMB Group has surveyed small businesses with the following question: “Do you use/plan to use business app stores or marketplaces?”.

Here are the key findings:

  • 28% of small businesses are using app stores. The good news is that this is up from 23% last year (2010)
  • 6% of small businesses use them on a regular basis (probably high apps consumers startups) and 22% occasionally
  • 17% medium businesses (100-999 employees) use app stores on a regular basis

Which App Stores focus on small businesses

Some of the SMB-centric app stores that have already launched include:

  • Intuit Workplace App Center, which provides a central location where small businesses can locate and try business applications that work with QuickBooks and with each other.
  • Google Apps Marketplace, which offers Google users apps that integrate directly with Google Apps.
  • NetSuite SuiteApp.com, which features third-party solutions that integrate with NetSuite.
  • Zoho Marketplace, which provides applications that work with Zoho’s solutions., and features an area that lets users submit requests for new apps and features, and developers can built new apps in response to these requests.

There are also marketplaces such as GetApp.com, which isn’t organized around a core application or platform. Instead, GetApp positions itself as a neutral, “meta-marketplace” that is application and platform agnostic–any app can be listed. Participating vendors provide GetApp with landing pages and documentation to verify integrations between their apps and other solutions.

There are a few more SMB-centric app stores that are in the works, but not yet announced. In addition, there are many app stores that aren’t exclusively focused on SMBs, but feature plenty of apps relevant to SMB requirements, such Salesforce.com AppExchange, SugarExchange, Facebook and Oneforty for Twitter.

How to use App Stores

In the case of smart phones, customers select an app store based on the device they use. But when it comes to running apps on your Mac or PC over a Web browser, your choice of where to shop isn’t limited by a device—and may be a bit more complicated. Chance are that you already use applications from several vendors that have a marketplace–maybe you already use QuickBooks, Google Apps and Salesforce.com, for instance.

But you may not want to use several different marketplaces, because that will dilute the value of one-stop shopping, single sign-on, integration benefits and so on. So how do you decide which app store–or stores–to frequent? Some key considerations to think about include:

How many applications are in the marketplace, and how fast is it growing? While bigger isn’t necessarily better, a vibrant, growing marketplace means more choices for you.

How simple is it to sign up, sign in and test drive new applications? Try some free trials to see how things work.

Are you looking for extensions to an application you already use, or for an additional, new solution? Some stores, such as SugarExchange and NetSuite SuiteApp.com focus most of their energy on providing applications that extend their core solutions. Others, such as AppExchange and Google Apps Marketplace, provide both extensions as well as complementary solutions in other areas.

How active is the user community in providing reviews, comments and ratings? A more engaged user community gives you more feedback about specific apps.

How has the app store’s anchor tenant vendor served you as an application vendor? It’s likely that that the vendor will bring a similar set of attitudes towards customer experience and service to its marketplace. Consider also that the more applications that you consume and integrate with those of an anchor tenant, the more reliant your business will become on that vendor’s platform and ecosystem.

What level of integration do you need between your existing application(s) and a new application? Many apps stores (such as Salesforce.com AppExhcange and Intuit Workplace) require developers to use a common data model, which enables tighter integration between applications. In contrast, in Google’s Marketplace, the web is the platform and developers build to open web standards. As mentioned, GetApp.com’s approach provides users with information about integration capabilities. This means that the degree of integration among apps in the marketplace will vary.

What is you view? What is missing from business apps marketplaces to become the main ressource to find the solutions that meet your needs as you move more of your operations to the cloud?

Post written in collaboration with the SMB Group, a tem of  industry analysts focused on SMBs

Image courtesy of Flickr user RogierN