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Companies race to gain foothold in new smartphone market for workplace messaging

A handful of tech companies are betting that smartphones will eventually serve a different role in the workplace than they do outside.

The “bring your own device” trend — employers cutting IT budgets by requiring employees to use personal phones instead of company-provided devices — creates a need for a new generation of special workplace communication apps, some entrepreneurs say. A recent Gartner report estimates half of employers globally will implement a “BYOD” policy by 2017.

The market has drawn the attention of start-up CoTap and corporate veteran BlackBerry, which both plan to release new workplace texting platforms in the next few weeks. Voxer, which lets users record and send sound bites, unrolled a business version of its consumer app about a month ago.

“In any industry, all companies, no matter what you do, your employees need to communicate with each other,” said Jim Patterson, founder and chief executive of CoTap.

The San Francisco-based start-up recently raised $5.5 million to create an iPhone and Android app letting employees text without exchanging phone numbers. Patterson was formerly chief product officer for Yammer, a tech company that created social networks for business clients.

CoTap is intended to serve as an internal communication channel. After signing up with work e-mail addresses, CoTap users can text anyone else in a business’s directory — alerting co-workers if, say, they’re a few minutes late to a meeting or a conference room changed, Patterson said. Normally, one could text a co-worker if they had that person’s phone number, but “if you don’t, you just wouldn’t bother.”

Corporations are still grappling with the security issues associated with using personal phones to conduct private business. And Patterson acknowledged that such services may wind up adding to a company’s costs. His company is still working out pricing models — the app will initially be free for consumers.

“I don’t think what we’re doing replaces wholesale what exists today. I don’t think people are going to shut down their e-mail servers. I think it’s a new type of communication.”

It is not yet clear that there is a big appetite for such apps. In a recent poll of 100 early-stage investors, almost 5 percent said they were paying close attention to opportunities in “BYOD enterprise services,” compared with more than 20 percent watching mobile payment technology, according to valuation company Worthworm.

San Francisco-based Voxer is marketing its service as a smartphone alternative to radio “walkie-talkies.” It sends and saves sound bites instead of text messages. When he first launched Voxer almost two years ago, founder and chief executive Tom Katis wanted to vend the technology to businesses but found it a hard sell.

“Trying to explain [the concept] to somebody intellectually — people don’t get it.”

Voxer resonated better with consumers willing to try new apps, Katis said. Within several months, Voxer grew to tens of millions of users, reaching iTunes’ 20 most downloaded free apps. Having demonstrated the concept, Katis said, the team added features like urgent notifications and headset integration and rereleased the app for businesses a few weeks ago. Businesses pay subscription fees of between $5 and $10 a month for the service, Katis said.

BlackBerry, which eight years ago pioneered BlackBerry Messenger, a text service for BlackBerry phones using PIN codes instead of phone numbers, plans to release an iPhone and Android version of the service in a few weeks, the company said.

“We see growing opportunity in this space to make messaging, screen-sharing, some group features, and other sharing features,” said Thad White, director of BBM for Business.

White noted that many of BlackBerry’s business customers are in highly regulated industries — government, finance and health care, for instance — with strict compliance laws requiring employers to survey employee communication records.

The new version would allow them to gather records from employee BlackBerry messages, even if they’re not using BlackBerry devices. The service currently has 60 million active users who send 10 billion messages daily, according to the company. Businesses pay about $19 a year per user for the service, according to BlackBerry.



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