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Toronto, May 26/10 - The new iPad app for Wired Magazine photographed at the Globe and Mail in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Photo Illustration By Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Gold rushes are always frenetic things, and the app-making market is no exception. For all the excitement over apps, the sudden influx of clients and app-makers into the market has led to a confusing scene. For businesses who think they'd like to hire a professional to develop an app for them, that can mean a bewildering array of prices and options.

"Clients are putting two quotes side-by-side, and they're saying, why are these so different?" says Rob Kenedi, a partner with Endloop Studios, a Toronto developer that does custom app work, in addition to having found success as a producer of iPad app-making tools. Indeed, an unscientific survey of accomplished app developers showed that hiring a firm to develop an app can cost anywhere between several thousand and several hundred thousand dollars.

So, if a smaller business wants to jump into the app game, what can they expect to find? And what options are out there?

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To build an app, you can either hire someone to do it for you, or take advantage of one of several DIY web-services for building simple apps. Businesses looking for something less generic, however, will look to developers to make their app dreams a reality. The choice, then, is between completely customized development and something a little more off-the-shelf.

Going custom

If there's nobody else out there doing what you'd like your app to do, building it from the ground up is the only way to go. And there's no shortage of firms, big and small, who'd like to help you - for a price.

At one end, many web developers are jumping into the app world and starting small firms. In the computer world, "two guys in a garage" doesn't have to be a bad thing - it's where most famous companies start. But app development isn't a drop-and-go proposition, and there are factors that caution against untried developers that can't promise they'll be with you for the long haul.

Apps require significantly more upkeep than websites. Not only are there multiple platforms to develop for, but all of those platforms are constantly changing. iPhones, for instance, pile on new features with every iteration, and tweak the ones that are already there. Android phones are increasingly fickle to update, since the software runs on so many different manufacturers' handsets.

"There's the ongoing cost of, at least yearly, doing a substantial update," says Scott Michaels, Vice President of Client Services at Atimi Software, a large Vancouver-based developer, and one of the first companies to release iPhone apps.

And that's not including the process of updating the content on your app - something that typically involves creating a website you can log into to push out new content. Full-service developers will also handle the sometimes-tricky process of getting apps accepted into the various app stores, and will work with the client to promote them, so customers will actually find them.

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But with size and experience comes cost.

It's difficult to generalize about the cost of app development, since there are so many different kinds of apps, but custom projects with bigger firms usually start in the tens of thousands of dollars. Where multiple platforms are involved, development, maintenance, and updating can easily run past $50,000 for a mid-size project. Hiring a large developer for more complicated projects, like e-commerce, can push into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Frequently, a monthly retainer is involved, and in most - but not all - cases, the app's intellectual property remains with the client, should they move to a different developer.

Considering platforms

Thankfully, more affordable options are emerging. A growing number of app developers are focusing on what you might call app platforms, offering the efficiencies that come with (nearly) off-the-shelf products.

It works like this: Instead of building every app from the ground up, the developer focuses on building an app tailored to a certain niche. When a new client comes along, some custom elements are added, a new logo and some new graphics are applied, and the client's data is poured into a template - and presto; an app can be delivered at a manageable cost.

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For instance, a Toronto firm called Mobile Fringe sells a platform geared towards shopping malls and retail centres, which now powers apps for malls ranging from local outlets to the Eaton Centre itself.

"It really is a plug-and-play way for people to get into the game," says Steve Sorge, the CEO of MobileFringe. "We basically have 60 per cent to 75 per cent of your app already built."

Not only is platform-based software faster to deploy, but the expense and benefits of upgrades are shared by every client. This means MobileFringe can deliver simple apps closer to the $10,000 mark, if not less.

And while mobile platforms have been catering to big-ticket clients like media companies for some time, they're increasingly emerging from small developers and being aimed at smaller clients.

Discover Anywhere Mobile, for instance, makes travel-and-tourism iPhone apps that integrate maps of a destination with a live guide of what's going on there. By offering prices that usually range from $6,000 to $10,000, they've attracted municipalities who don't always have unlimited budgets. Meanwhile, Panvista Media, a small Toronto app-maker, is carving a niche for itself with a platform called Joyspoon, which delivers branded apps to large law firms. Joyspoon provides quick access a large law firm's directory, making it easy for prospective clients to find the partner or associate they need.

Despite being a smaller operation, selling modified versions of the same software to multiple clients means Panvista can focus on the finer points of multiple platforms, including the many different flavours of that lawyer-friendly smartphone.

"You should see our office," says John Robinson, VP Marketing at Panvista. "All the desks are covered with different BlackBerrys."

Bear in mind, though, that not all platforms are created equal: Templates are well and good, but clients need to make sure that the apps their appear distinct to users. Is there an off-the-shelf app platform that matches your business? If there's not today, there might be in three months. It pays to keep an ear to the ground: Watch what your competitors - or, better still, similar businesses in other markets - are doing to promote themselves on smartphones. If apps start popping up in your industry, take a closer look at where they're coming from: there might be an opportunity you never knew existed.

Special to The Globe and Mail

The series continues with a new post every Monday for the next week. Stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Your Business website.

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