I come across this question regularly. Mobile apps have been the hot thing for a while and don’t seem to be slowing down. A mobile app could be a great way to differentiate a business from its many competitors and provide a new level of customer engagement.
However, my usual answer is: no.
Websites - especially mobile ones - behavior more and more like apps every day because of their interactive features, from social components, to blogging, to shopping carts. A lot of the functionality you may want in your mobile app can be done on your website - much more cheaply and quickly than with a mobile app. They’re not “static” (unchanging and boring) like they used to be.
Let’s first evaluate some of the difficulties of creating a mobile app:
- Expensive. Apps can cost a lot of money. It depends on the functionality, quality of the developer, etc., but you’re probably not getting a good app for under a few thousand dollars. Some of the more complex apps likely cost in the hundreds of thousands or millions to develop (like normal software).
- Time-Consuming. You don’t just go to a developer and say "build me this." You will spend a significant amount of time with your developer (I hope you like him/her/them!) to create sketches, draw out the functionality, explain where data flows in/out, and many other important details.
- Need for maintenance. This can get expensive. Furthermore, if you have it on multiple platforms (e.g. iOS, Android, Windows, Blackberry), you’ll need to create and push a new app update for each of the platforms you have it for - and probably need to deal with custom updates for certain versions of each individual platform, as well.
- Risky. When all is said and done, you could have spent a lot of money on an app - maybe it turned out great, or maybe it turned out terribly. Regardless, who says people would even want to download and use it? You've just spent a lot of time and money on this.
The best alternative to a mobile app would be a web app.
Wait - what is a web app versus a mobile app?
A web app is like a mobile app, but is used anywhere there’s a browser (works on desktop, tablet, iPhone/Android/Blackberry). An application is pretty much a piece of software (in this case, that runs in your browser) that takes an input and produces a desired output. Great examples of web apps (though very complicated/expensive/well-developed ones) would be social media on your desktop/laptop/mobile web browser, such as Facebook or Twitter
Recently, someone mentioned to me about having an app for their business with a special kind of calculator that their customers would use - and this would be a prime example of something to create a web app for (in an existing web site, most likely). It would be significantly less expensive than a dedicated mobile app and much easier to maintain. You can likely embed a web application (e.g. a fancy calculator) into your existing website.
*Of course, for those of you who are very adventurous and have some extra time, there are many services that will allow you to build your own web and mobile apps right in your browser, such as Appcubator, though I have no idea how well these work.
Have any of you tried to make an app? We'd love to hear about it - comment or share below!