The Good, Bad and Ugly of Custom-Built Mobile Apps
Having a workforce equipped with mobile technology isn't a luxury only attainable by large enterprises. SMBs can greatly benefit from mobile applications as well. The question is, are the mass-market apps available in mainstream stores like the Android Market or iTunes App Store good enough to swing it, or will you need to cook up your own custom concoction?
09/20/10 6:00 AM PT
With smartphones becoming ubiquitous and more and more people using mobile devices both at work and at home, enterprises are increasingly looking to make use of mobile applications. Small and medium-sized businesses are apparently beginning to pick up on this trend, and many of them are turning to developers to create custom mobile apps for them.
"The mobile apps market has moved its center of gravity from business apps to consumer apps in the past couple of years, and this overall benefits SMBs because they potentially align more with a consumer profile in that they want easy-to-use apps that are inexpensive," Al Hilwa, a research director at IDC, told TechNewsWorld.
Apple and Google recently launched efforts to make mobile app development easier, so why would SMBs want to pay extra to app devs instead of using those tools to create their own apps -- or just downloading and using the business apps already available in online app stores?
Revenue from mobile apps will total nearly US$2.4 billion in the United States alone by 2013, Carl Howe, director of anywhere consumer research at the Yankee Group, has predicted.
Several large U.S. corporations, including Salesforce.com, are adopting the iPad as an essential tool because it offers their executives mobile access to corporate apps. Salesforce.com unveiled Chatter Mobile for various mobile platforms recently, citing IDC statistics showing that mobile devices are becoming the new enterprise desktop for more than 50 percent of the workforce.
SMBs apparently fit in here rather well.
"We develop a wide variety of custom mobile applications for SMBs -- companies doing less than (US)$10 million a year -- here in the United States," Saptarshi Roy Chaudhury, vice president of marketing at [x]cubeLABs, told TechNewsWorld.
Some are in the e-commerce area; others let users send tweets; and still others are games. Roy Chaudhury's firm has also developed a gaming platform that works similarly to the Apple Game Center, and a platform for educational websites. One e-commerce app [x]cubeLABS created is "Qponomics." This is a mobile coupon app that's location-aware.
The Unseen Pitfalls in App Development
Apple and Google have unveiled tools that make it easier to develop apps on their platforms. So why would SMBs go to the expense of hiring app dev firms like Roy Chaudhury's [x]cubeLABS instead of creating their own apps in-house?
"Developing mobile apps with these software development kits might look easy, but you need to understand the technicalities," Roy Chaudhury pointed out. "Each of these platforms has its own language and its own way of working."
For example, Apple's iOS uses Objective C, while the Android and RIM platforms use different versions of Java, Roy Chaudhury said.
"Aside from having fewer resources than large enterprises, SMBs face the same challenges when developing on mobile as anyone else," Peter Farago, vice president of marketing at Flurry, told TechNewsWorld. "The market's fragmented, meaning they have to create different apps for different platforms and have to design apps for the lowest-common-denominator phones. Also, they have to consider that the phones will have only intermittent connectivity to networks."
Another point working against SMBs developing apps in-house is that application development is more complex than it appears to be.
"First, you have to come up with the concept, then the design, then the graphics for the app, then you have to test the tech aspects and also test the guidelines for the app store you want to deploy the app in," Roy Chaudhury explained. "Once you deploy the app to an app store, you have to market it. It's difficult for an individual or even an SMB to run this entire cycle alone."
Ease-of-Use SDKs Are Just Toys
It's almost axiomatic in the high-tech industry that SMBs lack the expertise and in-house tech staff to do much in the way of IT work, so app development isn't easy for them. However, Apple and Google have unveiled SDKs are claimed to simplify the process.
For instance, Google's App Inventor claims to make the task on Android easier.
However, it doesn't do away with the need for programming skills.
"Fundamentally, App Inventor doesn't appear to be that much different from Visual Basic," Randy Abrams, director of technical education at ESET, told TechNewsWorld. "I consider Visual Basic programming with Tinker Toys."
App Inventor is "a way to get non-programmers interested in development," Abrams said. When such non-programmers run into the limitations that drag-and-drop programming entails, some may be inspired to learn more and become more savvy.
In other words, unless the programmer is sufficiently skilled, apps created with simplified SDKs may not be robust enough to meet SMBs' business requirements. And if the programmers are that skilled, SMBs may not be able to afford them.
Why Not Tap the App Store?
Perhaps there's a less costly solution -- downloading generic apps from the Web.
Hundreds of thousands of mobile apps are readily available on the iTunes App Store, Google's Android Market, and other mobile app stores. So why don't SMBs just download apps that fit their requirements from these stores and pay the relatively small fee for them instead of putting up thousands of dollars to have a mobile app custom-built for them?
"There are two reasons an SMB has an app custom developed," [x]cubeLABS' Roy Chaudhury said. "First, the utility aspect -- it might have a particular requirement in its business flow, for example. Second, from the marketing and branding perspective, it may want to reach out to its target audience with its app. In both these cases, when you use a generic app, the branding, and therefore the connection with the customer, is missing."
Further, each business has its own particular requirements, such as work processes and work flow, and generic apps, by their very nature, cannot meet those requirements, Roy Chaudhury pointed out.
That's not necessarily true for all generic apps, however.
"If it's an email or maps app, an out-of-the-box app will work just fine," Peter Farago, vice president of marketing at Flurry, told TechNewsWorld. "If it's an inventory management app, you'll probably have to develop something that's customized."
Also, most of the apps in mobile app stores are customer-focused, Farago pointed out. That would imply they might need considerable customization.
Customization Is No Snap
Even if an SMB has in-house app devs, it might find that customizing a generic is more costly and difficult than expected.
"To modify a generic application you'll need to buy the source code, and there's a question as to whether the developer will be willing to sell you the source code," [x]cubeLABS' Roy Chaudhury pointed out. "And, if he is, you might pay almost as much as you would to have a custom application built."
Further, customizing an app requires expertise in various technical fields.
"The hardest question to answer is the selection of specific mobile platforms," IDC's Hilwa remarked.
Another problem businesses face when trying to customize generic apps in-house is that they understand their own field and the business logic in that space, but may lack expertise in the mobile area or other technical fields, Roy Chaudhury pointed out. Also, sometimes they may not come up with the most efficient workflows in mobile apps because they don't know enough about the mobile space.
"Specialists in the mobile domain like us can advise SMBs how to convert their business flow and take that to the mobile space in the best way," Roy Chaudhury said.