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Should you develop an app for your business?

In this four-part series, we'll explore how businesses can tap into the burgeoning world of mobile applications.

Part One: Mobile applications

Whether or not we asked for it, we live in the age of the app.

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Apple's App Store has passed the 300,000-app mark, the Android Application Market is over 100,000, and even RIM's straggling BlackBerry App World recently announced a collection of over 15,000 programs. With so much attention focused on apps, the question becomes: are they a good fit for smaller businesses looking to promote themselves and drive sales? Should a business with limited IT resources take the leap into the app world, or should they focus on making sure that they have mobile-friendly websites that are up to snuff?

Developing a mobile application from scratch - or even hiring someone to do it for you - is an intensive, difficult and costly proposition. But for businesses who want to harness the energy and enthusiasm, there are options that might bring a custom app into reach.

There are three basic ways to deliver information to a smartphone: With normal webpages, with websites that are specially designed for mobile devices, and with apps.

Apps are native applications that run on a smartphone. On the upside, apps promise the best user experience on smartphones' small screens, because their interfaces are tailored to the devices they run on. They can offer a smoother user experience and features that aren't available on websites.

The downside is that fully-customized apps require professional programming expertise, which more expensive than regular website design. Moreover, apps need to be written specifically for each different kind of smartphone. iPhone apps don't run on Blackberrys, and so on. And because each kind of smartphone has such different interface conventions, porting apps between platforms is usually labour-intensive - at least, if it's done right.

There is, however, a middle-ground alternative to costly custom development: a growing field of online app-making services with names like AppBreeder and BuildAnApp promise easy app development, at the expense of customizability (and, of course, a cut of the proceeds). As well, there's a growing field of app platforms designed for specific industries - mall retail, for example - that vendors can customize for specific clients. Meanwhile, mobile websites offer the reverse equation: they're easier to develop across platforms, and increasingly offer platform-specificity, but can't always match an app's ease-of-use or feature set.

The two approaches aren't mutually exclusive; in fact, they need to coexist.

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"What we're seeing is that clients are going after a two-pronged approach," says Farhan Thawar, vice-president of engineering at Xtreme Labs, a prominent app-development shop in Toronto. "The client wants to be everywhere the consumer is."

As a general rule, businesses should create a mobile-friendly website before they venture into the world of apps. Most importantly, businesses need to attract and serve customers searching for them on Google and other search engines, something an app alone won't do.

"Have a good mobile web presence, even if it's simple," says Mark Pavlidis, a veteran iPhone app developer and the brains behind TweetAgora, a popular Twitter client. Now he's the lead mobile engineer for Guardly, a security app.

A strong mobile presence is one that gives mobile web-surfers quick access to the kind of information they're likely to be looking for on the go: phone number, directions, and contact information. Ready information about products and pricing for the benefit of consumers doing comparison-shopping on the go is also a boon.

It's only once a business has a mobile-friendly web presence in place, though, an app might be worth considering. "If they have a mobile app, that's usually a better experience for me," says Mr. Thawar, noting that well-designed app interfaces are typically more user-friendly than most websites.

Beyond ease of use, an app lets you tap into a smartphone's features, such as their built-in cameras, the GPS receivers that can pinpoint the user's location, and their ability to display rich-media content.

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"Maybe you want to have really rich graphics animation, which we're finding consumers are identifying with," says Mr. Thawar. "All of those things are very easy and compelling on the app side."

Moreover, once a user has gone to the trouble of downloading a businesses' app, its icon on their device serves as a persistent ad, keeping it top-of-mind.

That said, whether it's worthwhile for a business to go down the app path is debatable. Mr. Pavlidis notes that mobile apps can be tailored to individual mobile operating systems, taking on some of the finer interface touches that used to be the exclusive domain of apps.

Instead of starting from scratch, he suggests, better to focus on making sure that your business is integrated with apps that are already popular, like FourSquare, Yelp, and Google's maps.

For those who want to jump into the app world feet first, however, there are plenty of options - which we'll look at later in this series - and, in a booming marketplace, even more customers to woo.

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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