Why You Should (Not) Have Your Own Mobile App

As a mobile app developer, I spend a lot of time consulting companies with regards to why they should or should not (mostly should not) create a mobile application. Too often I see internet retailers and other brands with essentially no web presence or anything to offer wanting to jump on the mobile bandwagon. Mobile apps may be cool right now, but let’s face it: not everybody needs one.

 

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I have made mobile applications for major game companies as well as small businesses. I have released a number of my own applications, some of which I would deem successful and which continue to provide my company / me with residual income each month. Through all of this, I have learned a lot about the ever-changing world that is the mobile app marketplace – for the iOS, Android and Blackberry alike.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Single Biggest Mistake Companies Make

 

The first thing that most companies forget is that a mobile app needs to offer new value to the customers that the customer does not already have. I can already access most websites easily from my mobile phone, and I am much more likely to do so than I am to go arbitrarily download a new application. In short, it is best if the app can introduce a new feature that the company does not yet provide. Every company needs to ask themselves the following questions:

 

Are we prepared to do what it takes to support a mobile app, or are we trying to get something for nothing? Do we have a marketing budget and a strategy in mind? Do we know where the app is going? Are we willing to invest more time and money in the app post-launch to improve and maintain it, even if it is not yet profitable? Is this a core part of our business strategy or a “might as well” scenario?

 

 

Most people tend to assume that the very nature of having a mobile app will somehow make it successful. They have heard the stories of the fart-apps, the tip calculators and other seemingly pointless applications that have made boatloads of money in the AppStore. Unfortunately, the “wild west” days of the AppStore are over (if they even ever existed in the first place). Moreover, not all of these applications are not so simple and mindless as they may appear. For every successful fart-app, there are dozens if not hundreds of similar (or even identical) ideas that got lost in the store.

 

So, what makes the successful apps successful? Well, frankly, that’s too large of a question for the scope of this article (perhaps some other time…) but the point is that you cannot expect to succeed on an idea on its own. The implementation needs to be solid (a good user-interface and an app that functions well) and even then you would will not likely survive without marketing. There is an old adage in business that applies here: you need to be the first, the best or have the most money. If you come up with a new idea that solves a problem (you are the first), then you have a chance – until someone comes along that does it better… or they have such a large marketing budget that they simply blow you out of the water.

 

 

AppStore Growth

 

 

 

 

 

The Single Biggest Mistake Individuals Make

 

The other side of all this is that of new developers or just people “with an idea.” I cannot tell you how many emails / phone calls / etc. I have received that start with “so I have this idea for a mobile app…” I am sorry to be so blunt, but the vast majority of them are crap ideas or simply impossible. They come from everyone from teenagers and frat guys to established businessmen, but one thing is common: they failed to do their homework. One hour on Google could have saved us all some time, effort and emotion.

 

Furthermore, the truth is that developing a mobile app is usually not the cheap and fast endeavor that people have been led to believe it is. Sure, if you’re a single programmer or a lean startup you can create an app on a low budget without too much difficulty. But the ideas most people come up with and end up pitching are not only grandiose but lacking in overall direction. They do not have any concept of where they are eventually going or how they will get there. They amount to little more than a clone of an existing idea with some spin on it.

 

Just like in the tech entrepreneurship world in general, if you can summarize you idea as “Like [buzzword] except [barely-innovative feature]” and that is the extent of your pitch, then you are likely destined for failure.

 

 

 

Games

 

My formal education was in interactive media and video game design. Games are, in some way, an entirely different beast. A simple clone of another game can be successful in its own right. However, the sad truth is that the vast majority of games get buried in the AppStore. There is simply too much noise out there.

 

 

It is obviously preferable to have a pre-established brand or IP (intellectual property) to work with. It is a little known fact, though, that many of the big game companies lost money (and perhaps are still losing money) in most of their major ports of games. Part of this has to do with the fact that the AppStore represented an entirely new marketplace that they did not know how to target. I know at least one story of a major game company that refused to lower the price of its products because management felt that it would cheapen the brand. What they did not realize was that their pricetag was unreasonable for the AppStore and it was far better to sell a million copies at $2 each than a hundred copies at $10 each. There is an exponential relationship between AppStore rank and sales, meaning that the leaders in any category are making many many many times the amount of money as their competitors further down the ranks – and this social proof of rank is a self-fulfilling prophecy that supports itself.

 

The Angry Birds of the world, amazing success stories such as they are, came about because of one (or a couple) small developers working from passion and interest. If some company / person had paid for Angry Birds to be made, it would have likely cost a LOT of money (and perhaps been ruined by bureaucracy). As you may know, Angry Birds did not make much money at all for the first few months after it was released. In short, even though it was an outlier that achieved great success, I doubt that it could have achieved this success if it was conceived by any other means.

 

 

 

New Opportunities

 

All this said, the AppStore is changing the very face of the internet. While it may not make sense to simply clone a website into an app, there are plenty of good and innovative reasons to get into the mobile marketplace with a pre-existing brand.

 

Let’s take bloggers, for instance. Us bloggers have a brand which we are looking to disseminate to a wider audience, as well as further engage our existing audience. From a purely superficial point of view, an app which could provide a new distribution channel for the content we are already creating could be very useful to us. But what of the value to the user?

 

Well, as a traveler, there is one clear advantage a well-designed mobile app offers me: portability. Even slick WordPress plugins that give a blog a mobile-specific look are insufficient because they still have the inherent constraints of a website. That is, each time I want to read something new or click a link, I need an active internet connection. Even the Engadget mobile app has this problem. This may not be a big deal if you’re sitting on a park bench in the USA, but if you’re on a train/plane (or in France, like I am at the moment) then this is not a viable option. Furthermore, such “skins” are uninteresting. They look very “vanilla” and do little to engage me with the content. All they do is to take something that was previously unreadable and make it readable while eliminating the sense of branding and any uniqueness.

 

This is why I have coded an application for this blog that works on the iPhone and iPad (coming soon to the AppStore). Is it a great idea? I do not know. I am a single individual who made this app, as described above, so I can afford to experiment :) As a blogger I am curious if my message would be well served with new outlet channels. The app automatically downloads new blog posts & podcasts to make them available to the user (even without an interaction) and even lets users share content via Facebook. If I had products, like an eBook, to sell (which I do not) I could even sell it directly through the app so it could be read there. In the process of making this app I made a platform that could be used by other bloggers to create their own custom branded app for free. Again, this is just an idea, but one that may serve bloggers well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other Ideas?

 

Do you have an idea for a mobile app? Have you succeeded or failed with an app? Let me know below, or contact me directly. I always love discussing the mobile marketplace.

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Zane Claes
I post twice-weekly about using self-experimentation in order to find out what can improve your life the most. If you liked what you just read, why not subscribe via RSS, Facebook or Twitter?You'll find plenty of charts and data from my own experiments, handy resources to start your own, and general findings to boost your quality of life.
  • http://twitter.com/JamesDuncombe James Duncombe

    Good point, although surly HTML5 technologies such as offline web apps (cache manifests etc) are changing things?

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

      Yeah, I’ve been wondering about how HTML5 will change things myself. A lot of people think they know, but IMHO the only certainty at the moment is that nobody can be certain. I’d venture to say that they will open things up a bit, but there is something about having task-specific apps with a nice enclosed user experience that appeals to me as a user (not just a developer). I think apps that are not adding value by taking advantage of things only a custom app can do will end up as HTML5 apps instead, but the core experience will remain app-centric*.

      *(somewhat like excentic. haha.)

      • SS

        A classic case is the facebook app on Blackberry. The app allows me to go to the mobile site – I usually use the app to avoid signing into FB when I am on my handset. But the app does not give me the fully blown functionality which is available on the mobile site. Hence, I believe that a few basic questions need to be addressed – does the app really make things convenient? What is the problem which the app resolves. Per se, I think apps are here to stay. Having said that, the applicability, if I may use the word, or the context in which the app will be deployed needs to be clearly thought through.

        Thank you for sharing your insights with the world!

        • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

          Having developed for the BB myself, I cannot really blame the FB crowd for taking the easy road here. BB development is atrocious. I mean, absolutely awful.

          Did you see the recent open letter from a RIM employee to the brass? Quite interesting.

          Anyway, thanks for dropping by and I hope you continue to enjoy the site :)

  • Anonymous

    Gracias for the artcile… I am .Net developer and am teaching myself Objective C and leanring iOS. It is my understanding that there is a dearth of decent iOS developers in my area and your article was interesting.

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

      True, there is definitely a shortage of coders in this field – especially good ones! If you need any advice along the way, feel free to drop me a line.

  • Anonymous

    Gracias for the artcile… I am .Net developer and am teaching myself Objective C and leanring iOS. It is my understanding that there is a dearth of decent iOS developers in my area and your article was interesting.

  • Anonymous

    BlogCastApp looks interesting, but I think you’ve missed an opportunity.  As a reader, I don’t see much need for a separate app for each blog I follow.  I would, however, be interested in an app that lets me access all of the blogs I follow in a better way, a app that is as specialized towards reading blogs (as opposed to following a bunch of RSS feeds) as, say, the WordPress app is for posting to a blog.  I’m wondering if there’s a way to put all the customization you would make when selling BlogCastApp to a blogger into an in-app database, accessible via a bookshelf interface showing “covers” for all the blogs I follow.

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

      You’ve read my mind, actually. That is the end-goal of BlogCastApp. But to get there, I first need bloggers to want to participate. And to make that happen, I need to give them something for free. Thus the reason I’m making custom apps for bloggers for free. Eventually, I’d like to combine it into a single “BlogCast” app that could be used in the manner you describe, which also helps bloggers because of a StumbleUpon like discovery capability.

  • http://twitter.com/thebottlerocket thebottlerocket

    through twitter, I get sent a lot of blog posts and comment pieces, and I must say, very few I read from top to bottom, re-tweet and cut and paste into MSN and share paragraphs with my IM network. 

    I dont have much more too add, which makes for a pretty lame blog comment (apologies there), but I really felt the tone of your post and the measured and thinking approach to app development is something I mirror when talking to my own clients.  Its good to read someone else who has expressed it so succinctly because in the  world of work, of dealing with clients, making things and the graft of getting stuff on on its feet, it’s good to read someone whose approach goes some way in reaffirming my own

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

      Its never “lame” to leave such a comment – quite the opposite, it made my day to know that other developers found this useful. Hopefully I can continue to deliver ;)

  • http://twitter.com/thebottlerocket thebottlerocket

    through twitter, I get sent a lot of blog posts and comment pieces, and I must say, very few I read from top to bottom, re-tweet and cut and paste into MSN and share paragraphs with my IM network. 

    I dont have much more too add, which makes for a pretty lame blog comment (apologies there), but I really felt the tone of your post and the measured and thinking approach to app development is something I mirror when talking to my own clients.  Its good to read someone else who has expressed it so succinctly because in the  world of work, of dealing with clients, making things and the graft of getting stuff on on its feet, it’s good to read someone whose approach goes some way in reaffirming my own

  • http://twitter.com/thebottlerocket thebottlerocket

    through twitter, I get sent a lot of blog posts and comment pieces, and I must say, very few I read from top to bottom, re-tweet and cut and paste into MSN and share paragraphs with my IM network. 

    I dont have much more too add, which makes for a pretty lame blog comment (apologies there), but I really felt the tone of your post and the measured and thinking approach to app development is something I mirror when talking to my own clients.  Its good to read someone else who has expressed it so succinctly because in the  world of work, of dealing with clients, making things and the graft of getting stuff on on its feet, it’s good to read someone whose approach goes some way in reaffirming my own

  • Anonymous

    I must agree that many apps out there really don’t have a justification to exist other than to allow the company to say they have a mobile app.  I recall reading through all the comments on the Facebook for Android app a couple months ago and noting that many of the comments were along the lines of: “For many tasks their mobile web site works better than the app does and for some other tasks it redirects you to the mobile site anyway, so what is the point?”  Because of seeing so many reviews like that, I opted not to waste my time with the app and just used the mobile site.

    However, where I find those type of apps useful is where they add features that can’t be easily implemented, if at all, using a mobile web site.  For example, I had been using MyFitnessPal to track food intake but I almost exclusively used their Android app rather than the website because it allowed me to barcode scan packages which saved lots of time for items that were already in their barcode database.

    Another example is that my mother uses the Walgreens app on her smartphone because it, too, has scanning functions (for scanning prescription bottles to order refills using the app) that make it more useful than the mobile website could possibly be.

    Offline usage is an important feature for many apps as well, especially for my Android-based tablet which only has WiFi, not 3G, so I’m not always connected when I’m using it.

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

      Those are very nice examples of when a mobile app is warranted (MyFitnessPal and Walgreens) – I’ll have to remember them for future citation

      Can you think of any _major_ companies that went the opposite direction and made a useless mobile app? Originally the first engadget app struck me in this way, but the more recent updates seem to be better… they now seem to render in a much more customized way for the mobile experience, etc.

  • http://www.facebook.com/davidcatalano David Catalano

    Zane, By in large I agree. We continuously sway our clients to prioritize a superior web experience for their own website over a mobile app. Even when they have a decent mobile-enabled site we still then focus on creating mobile websites tailored to an in-store or on-location experience — bringing the best of digital to real-world. 

    I will say however that there are quite a few apps out there that I think are fantastic. The Amazon iPad app is a great example of how easy and fun (and dangerous) it is to buy online. I suppose we should set the price of entry into a mobile app as already having a superior mobile-enabled website.

    Thanks for sharing your insight!
    David

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

      Very interesting point about the Amazon iPad app, David. I spent a while thinking about this and the best conclusion that I have reached is that, in this case (being a powerhouse of online sales) the act of creating an engaging mobile experience was in fact a value-add to the users.

      Because they are so large they are able to provide one-stop shopping for nearly everything, along with the “one click payment” they offer (a VERY important feature for this app). As samwyse pointed out in the comments here, there is something to be said for an app that consolidates everything into one place for the user. This, in itself, is a powerful user experience.

      Cheers, and thanks for dropping by David!

  • http://twitter.com/allisonr Allison Reynolds

    I agree absolutely, major corps seem to jump into having an app without thinking about what it should actually be/do.  Just adds to the clutter of the app stores and is cast away like so much junk mail. If there was interaction – say live chat to customer service, or uniqueness like app only discounts (swipe the bar code on the screen under the scanner or some such thing) then you would have reason to keep them on your phone.

    I just developed an app myself (Slow Carb App) because I needed an app to do things that weren’t available (or I couldn’t readily discover) in the app stores, but the business plan is not to only make money from the app itself..and many people seem to think that is the be all and end all of app development.

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

      Right. Someone on the HN comments made a good point about how you need to develop dozens of apps before you build the brand/familiarity/experience needed to have a runaway hit, and I think they were right. Of my own apps, I have released dozens into the store but only a small fraction were successful (in my arbitrary definition of the word). Even now, though I think my chances are MUCH better, I don’t think I could be able to say with more than 50% accuracy if one of my apps will succeed.

  • Anonymous

    I disagree. Every company wants an app. The trick is “templating”. Create an app you can clone into a competitor app in a week. Then sell it for $20k. If you live in a big city, you can do it.

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

      I do not see a counter point to any of the points in my article here. Moreover, “templating” is expressly forbidden in the AppStore and being cracked down on even as we speak. Its a great way for a developer to waste a lot of time.

  • James Macfarlane

    Hey Zane,

    Really nice post, I think there is no real doubt that you know your market better than I do. That said I did dip my toe into the app store earlier this week with an app for my site (babynames.co.uk). It essentially is a babynames generator which is a feature that is available on our site already but this can obviously used offline.

    The app cost us a total of $1k to roll out onto Android and iOS (I was very happy with the result and price to be honest), for us it really wasn’t about making money. Our goal was to extend the brand of the site onto different platforms and open the sites potential to different types of links (SEO). Was it a sucess? I don’t really know and its far too early to tell but I think I will be working to build more of these type of apps on other large sites that we plan to develope(we are developing pregnancy.co.uk, babies.co.uk, gold.co.uk etc).

    So in conclusion while I completely agree with your comments above in terms of a immediate return, I also think that apps can used as a great promotional/branding tool for sites and provide a harder to measure long term benefit. I do not think these apps have to be as unique as other apps, just well packaged and tidy as you are fueling the applications success not just through the app store but a site with an existing membership and traffic source.

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

      Good story, James. You seem to be in a unique position to manage to get an Android AND iPhone app for a fraction of what I would normally expect most people to pay for just one. In this case, I think you actually fit into the “lean startup” category than has the resources to approach such a project.

      Your app itself actually has some good advantages, too. First, you’re in a niche niche market. Not only do you have good domain names with a unique niche target, but you are also very searchable. “Baby names” is a very essential phrase that, at some point in their life, most adults will probably search for.

      My advice would be to keep your app free and do exactly what you’re doing – use it as a funnel for your larger brand. If you can keep out advertisements and such, then all the better. Eventually you can add in additional features, like perhaps a way for new parents to upload pics of their baby under the name they chose. At this point you start to offer some cool/interesting value to the customers that goes above and beyond…

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  • Hotep17

    If an app is not the way to go, what about a mobile website?  I only ask because both require a good chunk of change, but to be competitive you have to be mobile.  Would HTML5 be a better option for the mobile site?

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  • Seomritunjay5

    The baby names and their meanings vary
    widely as there are different meanings in different languages for a single
    name. Some of the most common names are however named for the popular meaning
    in English language. The name Ashley is common for both the genders boy and girl.
    It has various meanings like “ash tree grove” and “ash wood”. The name gained
    its popularity after the release of the novel “Gone with the wind”. Hence over
    the next few years many women were named Ashley due to its popularity from the
    novel.

  • http://www.rizecorp.com/ Android Development

    hi i am a PHP developer and i am learning my self by searching from different websites and you are articles is nice keep update

  • http://www.socialcubix.com/ Allenbrayan

    It’s hard to say it really, looking at the current advancement in the field of mobile application development, it can prove to be very fruitful. 

  • Anonymous

    i came

    • Anonymous

      i also second that motion :D

  • http://twitter.com/SientjeHermans Sientje Hermans

    Hey Zane

    Thanks for this post. It already gave me some good insights on the usage of apps and the reasons why companies should make one, or not.

    As a productdeveloper for the tourist board of a province in Belgium, we get lots of questions from musea and heritage organisations about creating apps. And i must say, although i know some wonderful examples of how apps can make the visitor experience of heritage site more attractive, i’m starting to feel that people want to make apps for everything.

    Right now we have a question from an organisation that wants to make no less than 3 apps, one for each heritage site they own. I understand that they want to work on the digital experience of their sites, something that is becoming more and more important in tourism, but I know they want to make it because they want to do something new and spectacular (in Belgium making apps is still spectacular :-) ) but they don’t think about the big picture or the customer journey.

    So i wondered what your opinion is about this. Is it useful for a heritage organisation to make apps for every site they have? If not, what are the alternatives?

    Right now i think people would just download the app when they are at the location and then, after the visit, remove it again.. But is it worth the cost then?

    Thanx!

    Sientje

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