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New apps to help business get in step with mobile customers

Nine months after Apple and IBM began working together on building mobile apps for businesses, some of the first fruits are about to appear at UK pharmacy chain Boots, which has begun equipping store employees with iPads to serve shoppers in the aisles.

[FRANKFURT] Nine months after Apple and IBM began working together on building mobile apps for businesses, some of the first fruits are about to appear at UK pharmacy chain Boots, which has begun equipping store employees with iPads to serve shoppers in the aisles.

These customer service apps are part of a bid by Boots to encourage consumers to pre-order cosmetics and toiletries online, similar to calling ahead for medical prescriptions, while turning its 2,500 retail outlets into convenient pick-up points. "These apps put all of Boots' inventory at (employees') fingertips," said Robin Phillps, who is in charge of digital and e-commerce business at the company, now part of Walgreens Boots Alliance. "This makes it easier for them ... to interact with customers on their own terms." Companies across dozens of different industries are now eyeing how these mobile business apps from Apple and IBM can hook up front-line staff to back-office systems and make them smarter in face-to-face dealings with customers in the field.

Businesses which first invested heavily in apps for mobile shoppers have just begun to put customer-service employees on an equally mobile footing, Forrester Research said in a report this month on the phenomenon.

With many companies' in-house technical staff struggling to keep pace with the ways their employees use mobile phones, Apple and IBM are part of a growing market for supplying business and government organisations with a new class of apps for employees on the move.

Technology consultants Accenture, Cap Gemini and Deloitte are also top suppliers to this changing way of doing business, along with dozens of other service providers and hundreds of custom designer app firms.

IBM says it now has more than 200 global companies gearing up to use mobile phone apps through its partnership with Apple. These include US banking group Citi and Banorte of Mexico, Air Canada, and retailers American Eagle Outfitters and Boots UK.

The partnership has announced 14 app templates so far, which IBM then works with clients to customise with specific company data and analytics. Each app lets employees look up customer profiles and answer questions on the go rather than anchoring them to counter terminals as most businesses typically do. "We are trying to bring that same 'wow' factor, the same changes we have had in our personal lives, to our working lives," said Katharyn White, IBM's global sales and marketing lead for the IBM-Apple partnership.

The goal is to create 100 business apps running on iPhones or iPads by the end of this year, White said. Companies pay a monthly subscription fee per device running the app, plus the costs of the secure iPhones or iPads running the software, as well as for services to hook them up to back-office systems.

For the airline industry, these apps will let flight attendants help passengers rebook flights in mid-air. Financial service apps allow bankers, wealth advisors or insurance agents to make on-the-spot account decisions with clients in the field.

Other Apple-IBM apps give police secure, instant access on iPhones to crime-scene maps, video feeds and suspect profiles.

Besides design expertise for the apps themselves, Apple provides remote technical support for a company's own technology departments managing the apps. And as part of the deal IBM sells iPhones and iPads along with the business apps, a potentially important new revenue stream for Apple as big businesses begin to mobilise more of their workforces.

For IBM, which has software and design teams developing the MobileFirst apps, the apps themselves also take corporate and government customers to a range of IBM services - technical support, mobile device management, back-office software integration and cloud computing.

At Boots UK the retailer plans to introduce the business apps in hundreds of pharmacies to employees equipped with 4,000 iPads it has purchased so far. Boots also plans to make Wi-Fi ubiquitous in its pharmacies, both for employees using the business apps and for shoppers on their phones.

Currently 7.5 million shoppers visit Boots stores each week while 2.7 computer and phone users research and purchase goods via its online sites. About one-third of online shoppers, or around 1 million consumers, do so using mobile phones, so far.

The aim is to get customers to order the bulk of their goods online and then pick them up the next morning at local pharmacies, Phillips said. Employee apps complement this mission with a means of interacting with in-store customers.

Its Sales Assist app, which provides an internal version of the company's public e-ecommerce site, enables Boots employees to serve shoppers in the aisles and eventually they will also be able to take payments with a quick swipe of the customer's phone. "The direction we are moving is purchasing in the aisles," Mr Phillips says, adding that the goal is to remove the check-out till as a barrier to buying.