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Do I need an app?

December 24, 2011


Since iTunes App Store and Android Market launched in 2008, apps have been the hot thing. While apps on phones are not a new idea, these new distribution channels cut through a forest of red tape and their respective development platforms made it much more practical to bring an application to a large number of users on a large number of devices. With developers able to reach consumers so much more easily, the results have been staggering. The iTunes app store boasts 18 billion downloads, while the Android Market recent passed 10 billion. Together, that’s 4 app downloads for every person in the world.

Businesses are clamoring to meet their customers in this new medium, and understandably so. However, native app development is expensive, so it is important to consider what an app can and cannot do for your business before diving in. You may find that a different type of application might make more sense.

One reason people offer for wanting in an app is so that their customers can find their business in an app store. This made sense in 2008, when there were few enough apps that anything decent got exposure, but it is no longer the case today. There are about 1 million apps in the iTunes and Android stores today, and the lists of newest apps can turn over before anyone sees what you’ve published. The app universe is now a bit like the web – you know you need to have a web site, but just having a web site isn’t good enough. You must offer something that people want, you must be findable, and you probably need to do some marketing to get people there in the first place.

So if just showing up in an app store isn’t worth the investment, why build an app? The answer lies in what a native app can do that other media cannot. Native apps can take advantage of hardware on a smartphone or tablet, like a camera, GPS, accelerometer (tilt and jiggle detection), and compass. You can bring up an alert when something important happens (a client passes by a house for sale that falls in their price range). You can load data in the background (like today’s TV listings) so that it’s already there when the user wants it – even if they’re in a subway station with no signal.

The mobile-savvy reader will point out that most of the above is possible with a “hybrid” app – using something like PhoneGap to build a website that looks great on mobile devices and has access to native device features like GPS.  This is true, and you should certainly consider this strategy.  Hybrid apps can generally run on multiple platforms (like Android, iPhone, and Blackberry) with only minor tweaking to get things right for each platform, and so developing a hybrid app is a cheaper way to get to all the relevant smartphones and tablets. Furthermore, hybrid apps are wrapped up into a native app “shell” that makes it possible to upload them to the iTunes App Store and Android Market, so you still have a chance to gather ratings, reviews, and popularity there.  The downside to hybrid apps is that they almost never feel like a “real” app – if you write a single app, it won’t look like an Android app, or an iPhone app, it will look like a website.  If you’re not very careful, a hybrid app can feel cheap and flimsy.  You can absolutely get around this, but it takes a great deal of effort, negating the advantage of building a hybrid app in the first place.  In general, I recommend a hybrid app if you have existing in-house expertise with web development, but build a mobile-friendly web site isn’t powerful enough for what you want to accomplish.

Of course, that brings up the subject of mobile-friendly websites.  If you want your customers to interact with you with their smartphones and tablets, but you don’t have any need to take advantage of what makes those devices unique (compared to a desktop computer), a mobile-friendly website may be all you need.  The trick is to not just shrink your desktop-friendly website.   You need to think through what will be important to your customers on the go compared to when they’re sitting at their desks.  Think bite-sized content and easy information look-up.

It can be difficult to come to a decision on which of these options will work best for your business.  If you’d like some help talking through your priorities and how they match up with mobile development, please contact me.  I’ll be glad to give you a quick consultation for free, or provide a more in-depth report.  As you can see from this post, I will provide unbiased analysis – I’d love to work on a development contract for you, but more importantly, I want you to make the right decision.

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