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Insurers' Mobile Platform Wars

Consumer adoption of various smartphone brands is forcing insurance carriers to devise strategies for developing mobile apps for multiple operating systems -- or choose one and hope it comes out on top.

Developing Differences

The more open nature of Android helped State Farm bring to market quickly an enhancement to the carrier's Pocket Agent for Android application called "On the Move." Released in August, the On the Move widget allows users to set their phones to send auto-reply text messages informing the contacts attempting to reach them that they are driving, in a movie or otherwise unable to respond.

"Of the phones we provide services for, Android is the only operating system currently that allows for widgets, and we wanted to make this safety feature as easy and as quickly accessible as possible to improve safety while driving by limiting distractions," Patti Gaumond, assistant VP of enterprise Internet solutions for State Farm, told Insurance & Technology when On the Move was released. "We decided on a widget instead of an application because a widget is already available for instant use -- it requires no loading time."

There's no simple answer to the app-development question, according to Mark Brooks, CTO of Woodland Hills, Calif.-based Health Net ($12.5 million in 2009 premiums), a health carrier that released an app for both the iPhone and Android this year. While the mobile platforms are continuing to converge in terms of capabilities, he says, there still are differences in the ways applications must be developed for them. "In terms of the capability you can provide your customer, we see it as a one-for-one right now," he relates. "But there are platform differences in terms of building the capability. With Apple and Android, the method you use to engage the development community is different: Android is Java-based while Apple is more proprietary."

Health Net's app includes access to health plan details, such as ID numbers, effective dates, deductible and copayment levels, and schedule-of-benefits information; information on healthcare providers that contract with Health Net; mobile versions of ID cards for all covered family members; and a help center with frequently asked questions. Brooks acknowledges that the way the carrier allocates resources to development constrains how quickly it can make an app available on different operating systems. The iPhone version of its mobile app, for example, led the Android version to market by about six weeks.

Regardless of the platform, however, Health Net's service-oriented architecture prepares the carrier to make any necessary updates to its mobile apps without altering the way in which consumers' information or content is gathered from its databases. "We don't have to make data services changes on a platform-by-platform basis," Brooks explains. "All the capabilities exposed in our mobile apps exist on, so we built a services layer that integrates with all the platforms."

New Kid on the Block

To serve its mobile application, San Francisco-based Esurance ($781 million in 2009 premium) has built a services layer that is similar to Health Net's. Esurance's device strategy, however, has a different wrinkle. The company is a launch partner for Microsoft's aforementioned Windows Phone 7. The carrier launched an iPhone app in July and went to work on an Android app, but received the offer from Microsoft and switched gears.

"We had an opportunity with Microsoft, and we felt it would be great for us to be one of the premier partners," says Steve Ariana, director of systems engineering, Esurance. "It wasn't necessarily at the expense of an Android app -- we're looking at rolling that out in the first part of 2011."

Microsoft promises to put pressure on the other operating systems with some of Windows Phone 7's features, Esurance development manager Paul Sykes adds. "They've introduced a different way of navigating around their applications, so we modified the layout from the iPhone app," he explains. "We used some of the multiscreen layout, such as the panorama, to encourage you to explore the app when you first open it up. And when you drill down to the policy or claims areas, there are other visual elements unique to that phone, such as the pivot, which allows you to quickly navigate to the information around your policy or claims."

Cindy Saccocia, director of U.S. insurance industry solutions for Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft, adds, "When we look at the mobile computing platform, it really spans mobile, PC and cloud. And, when you look at the trends in how we live, communicate and work, they're rapidly changing the consumer demand and distributors'/agents' requirements. That's forcing insurers to evolve their business models and channels, and the ability to do that from one of those devices -- PC, smartphone, anything through the cloud -- that's forcing insurers to adjust the way they look at the customer."

According to Saccocia, Microsoft is looking to appeal to insurers not just on the consumer side, but on the business side as well. Noting Windows Phone 7's ease of integration with Microsoft's existing Outlook and Exchange Server products, Saccocia says Chevy Chase, Md.-based auto insurer Geico is supporting the platform as an enterprise solution. But, she adds, the carrier has instituted restrictions in terms of what business processes can be migrated to the mobile channel.

"Back in 2006, we had employers providing employees with phones for simple tasks, such as e-mail," Saccocia explains. "Now things are moving faster, but the business applications that insurance companies will be able to provide to their agents is still going to be limited to the device size -- things like first notice of loss and compensation."

One company that's counting on carriers embracing diverse handsets for enterprise applications is Apperian. The Boston-based vendor has created a program called EASE that enables enterprise developers to build, secure and manage applications for Apple's iOS devices, and it plans to offer an Android-based version of EASE in the first quarter of 2011.

"IT in some companies is saying, 'We're going to have to come up with some policies and learn to work with these platforms -- we're not going to be able to make people buy certain phones,'" says Cimarron Buser, Apperian's VP of products and marketing. "And every company that we're dealing with has an opportunity to take some of their business processes and turn them into an app."

Nathan Golia is senior editor of Insurance & Technology. He joined the publication in 2010 as associate editor and covers all aspects of the nexus between insurance and information technology, including mobility, distribution, core systems, customer interaction, and risk ... View Full Bio

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