Making mobile enterprise apps cool

April 18, 2012: 12:57 PM ET

Taptera is one of many startups -- and large enterprise players --hoping to tap into the demand for user-friendly mobile apps in the workplace.

FORTUNE -- About a year ago Chris O'Connor and Dan McCall left their cushy IT jobs at pharmaceutical powerhouse Genentech to launch Taptera, a company that specializes in building white-label mobile apps for the enterprise. Since then, the San Francisco-based startup has launched five sleek apps for businesses, including a meeting room reservation system and an employee directory. Their latest creation, Serendipity, is an app that notifies salespeople when customers are nearby, which the company is unveiling this week.

You may not have heard of it, but Taptera is one of many startups -- and large enterprise players --hoping to tap into the demand for user-friendly mobile apps in the workplace. With employees bringing iPhones, iPads, Android devices and other consumer gadgets into the office, forward-thinking companies are finally starting to not only support these devices but also provide innovative apps to run on them. At Genentech, O'Connor and McCall developed sleek, playful iOS apps like Get A Room, a meeting room finder, and a contacts directory called Peeps. They were so successful that they caught Apple's (AAPL) attention—the iPhone maker invited them to speak to CIOs at customer events in Chicago and Canada. Eventually the duo left Genentech to start their own enterprise app-building business.

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O'Connor, CEO of Taptera, says the company is on track to develop upwards of 15 apps this year, with another 30 in the pipeline for next year. The apps are freely available on Apple's App Store but they won't do you much good unless your IT department cuts a monthly check (per user per app) to Taptera to connect data from back-end systems like SAP (SAP) or customer information from (CRM), which happens to be an investor in the startup).

It's not clear how big a company like Taptera can get. But they could definitely end up being an attractive acquisition for a larger company hoping to beef up its mobile apps cred—a la SAP. (O'Connor says there have been no official offers for the company to date). And while small, Taptera is part of a larger trend.

Plenty of new enterprise software companies are starting on mobile, not just developing an iOS or Android app as an afterthought. Matt Murphy, a partner with venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (who is not an investor in Taptera) says he's also seeing the rapid shift. For the first three years, Kleiner Perkins' iOS apps-centric iFund only invested in consumer apps. But that's changing.

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"It's cool to build an enterprise company nowadays," says Murphy. "The walls are coming down because of BYOD [bring your own device] and there's a new appreciation for design." The firm recently invested in mobile app management provider Apperian and Murphy says he is eyeing several other startups--including app developers--in the enterprise space.

Of course, many companies are still busy grappling with how to give employees secure access to email on the slew of new devices entering the workplace. And developing mobile apps in-house—or licensing them from companies like Taptera—isn't cheap. But there's a lot of untapped potential on mobile devices in the enterprise. Employees are carrying their phones and tablets with them at all times, and using them for work and play. So why not give them an app that sends alerts when a sales lead is down the street?

"Mobile is the new front end," says Taptera CEO O'Connor. "It's leading a lot of the application space today."

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(Taptera's apps are available on Apple's App Store--again, they're not much use without a corporate account. But there are plenty of other mobile apps for the enterprise out there: Check out Expensify, LinkedIn's (LNKD) CardMunch, Conference Me In and Tripit, now owned by Concur (CNQR).)

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About This Author
Michal Lev-Ram
Michal Lev-Ram
Writer, Fortune

Based in Silicon Valley, Michal Lev-Ram covers enterprise and mobile technologies for FORTUNE. Prior to joining FORTUNE, she wrote for CNNMoney, Fast Company, Popular Science and other business and technology publications. She was also a staff writer at Business 2.0 and holds a B.A. in journalism from San Francisco State University.

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