AT&T's Business App Center Deserves a Look

LAS VEGAS TheStreet -- Chris Hill started working for a phone company back in 1977. Today, he works for a business software company.

But the thing is, Hill hasn't changed jobs. He still works for AT&T ( T).

"Talk to everyone here. From the CEO on down, you won't hear a person talking about this business as a phone business," Hill said. "We are a business services firm. Phones help us do that, but we are a software services company."

I met Chris earlier this year while he was talking through AT&T's makeover on the balcony of a Las Vegas show hall. Stage crews at the Palms Hotel were hammering together a splashy new set below us. It was an apt setting to talk about AT&T's transition.
AT&T is set to unveil its business mobile apps center, hoping to capture the interest of entrepreneurs.

"We are not using all those tools," he shouted over the banging. "But that's what happening. It's a new set for us."

I get paid to give new ideas a full-dress rehearsal -- even the seemingly hare-brained ones like a phone monopoly deciding it wants to take on the Apple> ( AAPL) App Store on iTunes. So I let Chris, who's the vice president of mobility product management at the old Ma Bell, walk me through AT&T's notion of becoming a business app provider.

Chris broke down the logic. AT&T is big and can block and tackle for businesses navigating mobile markets. Then Chris cut to chase. The company got plum worn out of little developers pretending they know more about big phone systems than AT&T does.

"You do get tired of looking at the app of the moment and realizing those developers don't really get mobile networks," he said.

Fair enough. So, I promised Chris to give AT&T's business app ambitions a test drive.

On Tuesday, AT&T will formally unveil its business mobile apps center. My takeaway? While the business app initiative won't be a slam-dunk -- AT&T is, after all, going head-to-head with Apple -- the phone company just might be able to sell your business some mobile software.

Here's why.

AT&T offers a whole mess o' business apps.

What AT&T has done is create a central portal for business software on its websites and mobile devices. Think of the iTunes App Store, but without all the music, movies and kiddie stuff. At least in terms of choices for firms, AT&T delivers. I found a business-ready billable time app called A4P Enterprise. I liked how ProntoForms and Xora GPS, which are form- and fleet-tracking tools, were offered via AT&T. Overall, the experience had a curated, professional feel -- none of the hipper-than-thou consumer vibe a la the App Store or the Android Market. This was a place for the sober businessperson under pressure to solve a business problem. In other words, a place for me.

Play it right and AT&T simplifies billing, management and support.

Keep in mind; you will need to do things AT&T's way. But the "phone company as app store" has sizeable upsides: one bill, centralized management and legitimate support. Charges can appear as part of a normal monthly bill. AT&T offers several effective online management tools for its business apps. And, if you choose, it has active online, chat and even old-school phone service for its apps. Try that with the average app you get from iTunes.

Words of warning: Not all apps are solutions, and support can be spotty.

Of course, AT&T working as an app slinger has issues. The company has many subtle relationships with different app developers. Only a few apps have the full range of billing options and active support. Be sure you know what your AT&T app does for you before you buy. And remember, many tools are simply not going to help your businesses. Take TeleNav. It's a perfectly reasonable navigation package, but why buy it? Google's free navigation system works just as well. And it's free.

The bottom line.

Old Ma Bell showed me something with its apps ambitions. I liked the idea of the big, old phone company watching my back in the mobile app wars. Heaven knows, these days I need all the help I can get.

Assuming you do your homework and pick an app that can really do something for your business, Chris Hill and AT&T might actually have an app for that -- and for you.

This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

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