The Apple, Android and BlackBerry app ecosystem is massive and rapidly expanding. Could an app help your business expand and make closer and more lucrative connections with its customers?
Since the iPhone was launched five years ago in 2007, the smartphone market has exploded. More consumers now access the Internet with their phones or other Internet connected digital devices than with traditional computers. What this means for your business is that your customer base has gone mobile.
M-commerce looks set to outstrip E-commerce as the main retail channel for Internet connected consumers over the next few years. Indeed, analysts eMarketer forecast that the worldwide market for mobile marketing could reach $19 billion (£12.3 billion) by 2012. Forrester report that they expect US mobile commerce to reach $31 billion (£20 billion) by 2016.
And if you thought that the app market was just about games, think again. Businesses in every sector that have built their own apps are reaping real commercial rewards from this market.
An excellent recent example is Addison Lee, London's largest minicab company. After releasing their own app in 2011 to allow customers to book minicabs from their iPhones, the company took 75,000 bookings in a single month, with revenues in excess of £1.4 million. This means the company should have grossed over £20 million from its iPhone app alone in 2011.
A question often asked by business owners considering developing an app is would their money be better spent developing a website that is optimised for mobile devices – most notably smartphones. Bango in their Mobile Apps white paper state: "It is often better to spend some of your budget on getting a better web experience to replace the need for a mobile application."
Clearly as with all business decisions you must carefully assess your desire to move into App development. This must not simply be a knee-jerk reaction to a new market that perhaps your competitors are entering. Ask yourself whether there is a real business case within your enterprise to develop an app. Building a website that is optimised for mobile devices has now become an industry in its own right. Some of the leading services you could use to build your business' mobile web presence include:
- Net Biscuits
It is, though, important to delve a little deeper into the headline figures that companies like Apple like to highlight at their tradeshows and keynote addresses. Over 80% of the apps that are downloaded – not just from the Apple App Store – are free. The business case for these apps can be a simple extension of your company's brand.
Building your app
Once you have made your decision to build an app for your business, the most critical decision you must make is what kind of app you should create. For retailers in the bricks-and-clicks sector, the development of an app for their businesses was an obvious decision. Extending their commercial reach to existing and new customers via an app offers these companies an additional retail channel that will massively expand over the next few years.
Argos developed its iPhone app in-house and has seen massive success with over 50,000 downloads of its app in just three weeks. Developing the app was an ideal fit with Argos' business model that sees 32% of its overall sales completed online.
Consumers can search the Argos catalogue of over 25,000 products with their iPhone or iPad and use the Check and Reserve function that currently accounts for 22% of sales at Argos. With live real time stock check also built into the app, shoppers can instantly find, check stock and reserve via the app. And of course also locate a store using the iPhone or iPad's access to Google Maps.
How you decide to actually build your new app will mean making a range of decisions not least of which is fixing a budget for the development of your new app. You have basically three routes to app development that include developing your app in-house if your business has the resources and knowledge.
Out-sourcing your app development to one of the many new app design companies that have sprung up could be an option. Or you can investigate the growing number of app development services that allow you to design and build an app with nothing more than your favourite Internet browser.
However, these later services simply take your existing web content and repackage this as a standalone app. If you want to create a bespoke app for your business, hiring an app designer is usually the most efficient route to use.
Which operating system you want to develop your app for will also have a major bearing on the route you take. Developers for iPhone clearly dominate the marketplace at the moment, but developers do exist for all the other major operating systems as well.
App development tools
Apple now has an incredibly comprehensive iOS Development Program that any company can join. Note this will cost your business $99 a year. For this subscription you gain access to the iOS SDK (Software Development Kit) and the plethora of tools and associated materials on the iOS developers' website.
Before your business signs up, it's a good idea to view many of the videos that are available on the iOS developers' web pages, as they will give you a clear idea about how Apps are built for Apple's devices. The App Store Resource Center is particularly useful as it gives a clear overview of the entire App submission process – something that is important to thoroughly understand. And once enrolled your company can participate in the App development forums that can be a massive source of help and advice from other App developers.
Of course Apple is not the only App kid on the block. The other major players in the mobile devices market include Android that continues to grow in numbers, BlackBerry and the Windows mobile operating system that Nokia have recently announced they will develop smartphones for round out the market as it stands at the moment. Just as with Apple, each platform has its own supporting resources website where you can download the SDK and also a plethora of other materials.
Small businesses in particular may not have the in-house resources to construct their apps, which will mean looking for either an individual app designer, or contracting an app design company. Whichever route you take, it's vital that you choose the company or person your business works with carefully.
Websites like Forrst, Behance and Dribble showcase the best work being created by a huge range of developers. Browsing these sites can often enable you to compile a shortlist of potential developers to initially contact about creating your app.
You should of course still perform due diligence with any designer or company you have on your shortlist. Look at apps they have already created. Try and look for designers that have created apps in the category your business is interested in. You can then go and download these apps yourself and test them firsthand.
Also take some time talking to any designer or agency about how they approach app development. In this respect hiring an app developer is very much like hiring a consultant. It's vital that your working relationship is built on trust and all parties clearly understand their responsibilities.
No formal agreement should be made between your company and the app designers without a contract being signed. The contract should clearly layout the terms of the app building project including any penalty clauses for late delivery of the finished app. Your business may also want to include an NDA or none disclosure agreement that your app developers sign to ensure that no commercially sensitive information they may have access to during the app design process is leaked to any competing businesses.