Making your own apps for mobile devices isn't an easy proposition. But if you've determined you need one, and you'd rather not spend thousands on consultants, there's a growing number of companies that would like to ease the way for you.
Apps for mobile devices such as iPhones and Android handhelds are programmed on PCs, or Macs, using a downloadable software suite called a Software Development Kit. The software is free, but the years of computer science courses to learn how to program with are not.
But not all apps are so complicated that they need to be designed from scratch. For instance, apps that are primarily informational can be boiled down to simple elements: a page for a description of the business, a page for contact information, a page for photos, and so on.
For businesses that would like an app that fits this template, there are tools that make app-creation a code-free affair, designed using a point-and-click interface - or even just by filling out a questionnaire.
Of course, there's a trade-off between simplicity and flexibility: the more flexibility you're looking for in the design and functionality of your app, the more complicated the tools to create it will become.
The more flexible approach involves downloading a software-development program on your PC that puts a point-and-click interface on the app-making process. (It's analogous to the way that programs such as DreamWeaver once hid the process of coding websites behind a drag-and-drop interface.)
TapLynx ($599), for instance, is a downloadable software framework that puts a point-and-click interface on the iPhone app-making process. Like many entrants in the app-making market, the platform is geared toward taking the kind of content that might already be published on the Web - articles, updates, blog posts, photos - and packaging it as an app. However, you'll have to compile the results yourself by downloading Apple's iPhone Software Development Kit, and paying the $99 it requires developers to pay to register.
On the Android side of things, Google has released a similar program called App Inventor, which lets users build applications by dragging and dropping icons that represent both interface elements such as buttons and fields, as well as the actions that they represent.
Then, there's a category of app-making services that use a web interface to step users through a simple mix-and-match, fill-in-the-blanks process.
MobBase ($20 setup plus $15 a month) offers to put together apps that are specifically geared toward bands and musicians. Working through its spare web interface, would-be app owners use custom graphics to personalize an app that bundles together biographical information and upcoming-show data with streaming music clips and their own YouTube feed. In addition to a setup fee, MobBase charges a monthly fee, as well as a $5 charge for every further 1,000 installations.
Other services offer variations on this model. SwebApps ($399 plus $29 a month) offers a more robust set of app-making tools aimed at a general audience. Its prices start at $399 for a basic application, built with predefined elements, and $1,799 for a layout put together by their own designers. In addition to standard content-publishing tools such as photo galleries and republishing web content, SwebApps offers features that make better use of apps' capabilities, such as Google Maps integration that lets you pinpoint multiple locations on the map.
Meanwhile, AppMakr ($999), which boasts some big-name clients, provides a simple way to wrap feeds of existing data - particularly blog feeds, in their various formats - in an app's wrapper. A limited-time (almost) free version offers to create the app for you, provided you pay Apple's $99 developer levy.
There's a proliferation of similar tools out there, so be careful - not all automated app-generators are created equal. Before committing time, energy, and your brand, try downloading and using apps made using the same process. Make sure that they use an interface that's native to your phone, that they're visually pleasing, perform well, and - perhaps most importantly - give your users a compelling reason to download an app instead of just visiting a mobile website.
And that brings us back to a familiar Catch-22: A business should think twice about making an app in the first place if the content is so simple, it could go on a website. A mobile-oriented website is a better match for displaying simple information. Good apps, meanwhile, are immersive, engaging, and practical.
Falling short of this standard will leave customers scratching their heads at why they bothered. But if you can just make users glad they've downloaded your app, a booming marketplace of prospective clients awaits.
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