Ever tried downloading a mobile app and find that it just doesn't work? The problem may be more common than you think – some estimates say 75 per cent of mobile apps go live without being tested, leaving in bugs, poor design and security flaws.
A new group of start-ups is hoping to address this problem by developing testing solutions for companies and brands looking to try out their mobile apps in real-world conditions prior to launch.
Volume is driving the need for mobile app testing as sales of smartphones are expected to outpace those of PCs in 2012, according to Morgan Stanley.
"The demand for mobile access and to have a similar experience to what you've had on your laptop really heightens the need for more comprehensive testing," said Margo Visitacion, an analyst with Forrester.
uTest, based in Southborough, Mass., provides so-called crowd-sourced mobile app testing. Companies ranging from Google and Groupon to small start-ups submit their apps to uTest which are then tested for kinks by its community of over 50,000 professional testers.
uTest offers several types of testing, including functional (ensuring features such as log-in and installation work properly), load and performance testing (making sure the app is prepared for peak usage times) and security testing (keeping the app safe from hackers).
Apps are also tested across carrier, geography and software platforms – iPhone, Android, BlackBerry and Symbian – to ensure they can perform under most conditions.
"Especially in the Android environment there's no such thing as a single platform," said Carlos Montero-Luque, SVP of Engineering at Boston-based Apperian, which helps customers like NetApp and Estee Lauder distribute and manage their own custom-made mobile apps. "uTest allows us to do more than 90 combinations of different phones, networks, carriers and versions of the operating system."
Companies that release new versions of their app every two weeks or so have roughly 20 to 25 testers on an ongoing basis, while major brands launching a new app covering various geographies and carriers can have up to 300 testers or more, said uTest CEO Doron Reuveni.
Other start-ups in the space include Mountain View, Calif.-based Soasta, Perfecto Mobile in Boston and Apica in Sweden.
Soasta, which started as a testing service company for brands like Best Buy and Gap to ensure their Web sites didn't crash when inundated with users during the holiday rush or other peak times, has since expanded into mobile apps.
Last month it launched a new platform which allows developers to test gesture-based apps that involve functions like pan, pinch, scroll and zoom.
"There's new user interfaces coming out every day, even Minority Report- type stuff like hovering gestures, and 3D navigation," said Soasta CEO Tom Lounibos. "They're either multi-dimensional or motion-based, so there's a whole new requirement for testing this."
Steepening competition in the mobile space is making it essential for brands to release quality applications. This holds true particularly in the banking sector where customers use mobile apps such as those offered by JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America to perform actions where security is a necessity like transferring money, cashing checks and paying bills.
"When companies are thinking about their mobile strategy often they're not thinking about quality, but all it takes is one time for them to get badly burnt, like data is exposed or isn't managed properly," Visitacion said. "Because there's so many options now available to customers, there's no tolerance for mistakes anymore."
Investors too, recognize mobile app testing is a big business.
uTest nabbed $17-million in December from investors including QuestMark Partners, Scale Venture Partners and Longworth Venture Partners to bring its total funding to over $31-million.
Soasta also landed an additional $12-million in December, bringing its funding to $32-million.
And last October cloud monitoring company Keynote Systems acquired mobile testing start-up DeviceAnywhere for $90-million.
The rise of Twitter – which consumers often use to complain about buggy apps – has also made it all the more imperative that brands get their apps right the first time.
Even heavyweights like Facebook faced criticism on both Twitter and Apple's App Store following the release of their first iPad app in October, which users said was prone to freezes and slowness.
"If your app doesn't work or if it crashes because of a heavy load or functional issues, you're going to see a negative effect occur from your customer base which can get very loud," said Clint Chao, a managing director at Formative Ventures, which has invested in Soasta. "And customers now have a very available social platform to air their frustrations."