By Jeremy Lydic
More than half of the users of the internet go online with mobile devices. By 2019, mobile phone internet penetration is projected to reach 63.4%, up from 58.9% last year, according to Statista.
Considering how reliant on our smartphones we’ve become, it often makes sense for a business owner to want a mobile app. When it comes to brand awareness and marketing, there are many benefits.
“It puts you front and center on the user’s phone with a branded icon,” says Chris Askew, director of digital marketing strategy for Prodigal Co. “It has access to all of the core features of the phone, like push notifications and GPS.”
Other benefits such as stricter security regulations than websites and direct access to content without an internet connection can make an app a safe and convenient option for the end user.
However, as more websites are built to be responsive to mobile devices – some optimized for mobile over desktop – mobile apps aren’t as necessary for companies as they once were. Regional developers and marketing agencies are finding that most customers who want an app can usually get what they need with a mobile-responsive website.
“Businesses need to decide where a mobile app makes sense for them as a business,” says Joel Kendall, partner with 45Press in Canfield. “Five or 10 years ago, people were looking at almost creating their website on a mobile app, which is a bad experience. They feel clunky. They feel sluggish. They don’t move very smooth.”
A website recreated on a mobile app doesn’t provide the same experience as the desktop version, Kendall says. To be cost-effective, a mobile app should be simple and functional.
“Customers might want to check your inventory on demand, not necessarily read your About Us page,” Kendall says. “You need tools that are relevant to business.”
And mobile-responsive websites are simply more affordable than apps, says Prodigal’s Askew. The marketing agency, based in Boardman, typically recommends websites because a small- to medium-sized business likely can’t afford the investment of money and time to build an app, he says. App costs vary widely depending on engineering and features, he notes, costing tens of thousands of dollars up to a quarter of a million or more.
“You do get what you pay for in this area. So be prepared to invest,” he says. “That’s the barrier of entry for most clients.”
Websites are developed using just one code set. But for an app to be available on all mobile devices, it must be developed using more than one set of code, including Apple’s iOS, Android, Java and Google – all of which require engineers with those specific skill sets, Askew explains. Depending on the features, an app can require anywhere from 30% to 300% more coding and maintenance than a website. And that’s not counting user experience and app-design specialists, who have different skill sets altogether, he says.
“You have to consider the long-term structure of it. What are you doing for security updates, patches and maintenance,” all of which cost more money, he says.
All told, apps can require a minimum of 10 to 15 people to produce a product “that locally, most people aren’t geared toward,” says Lee Yi, CEO of Drund. The Boardman-based information technology firm offers custom-branded app development and maintenance along with other technical infrastructure services.
And while most of Drund’s work is done for companies in New York and California, even the larger, multi-million-dollar companies are shying away from native apps, Yi says. A big reason for that is the sheer number apps already available.
It’s difficult to know how many apps exist. Statista estimates Google Play, the app store for Android, offers some 2.1 million, followed by the Apple App Store, which has about 2 million. However, 21% of those apps were used just once during the first six months of ownership, Statista reports.
With so many companies rolling out apps, the market has hit a saturation point and consumers are picky about what they download, Yi explains. Apps such as Amazon, Google Maps and Facebook offer “clear value,” much of which is free to use and creates a level of expectation for competitors that is difficult to match.
“Google Maps calculates traffic for you in real time. You didn’t pay for that,” Yi says. “Really big companies like Google, Apple and Facebook have spent a large amount of money to give away free infrastructure. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for someone without the financial and technical resources to match that expectation.”
But that doesn’t mean companies that want an app have to go without. Third-party apps – such as Apple Pay for online payments and Grubhub to order food to go – allow companies to take advantage of existing infrastructure and engineers by uploading their information to the app, he says.
This practice is called “piggybacking,” says Ian Verschuren, chief technology officer with Marcus Thomas, Cleveland. He’s seeing more small to medium-sized businesses opting to piggyback rather than build their own apps.
“Maybe about five years ago you started to see a precipitous drop in need,” Verschuren says. “The need for functionality didn’t go away. But you could just leverage technology that existed in some other platform where someone else did the heavy lifting.”
This makes good sense for business-to-business service providers, which still have a day-to-day need for apps, says King Hill, senior vice president at Marcus Thomas.
For instance, HVAC-service technicians who use apps to track their customers, complete orders and generate bills on the job site can customize their own apps by using pre-developed technology, Hill says.
And while such services aren’t yet available with browser-based apps, that technology is being developed, Verschuren adds. Mobile phone manufacturers want to enable phones to work more closely with browser-based apps because “they realize that apps are becoming a restrictive thing for people to build,” he says.
The biggest obstacle is security, he says. End users don’t always want to grant websites access to their phones. However, with the release of 5G, or fifth generation mobile technology, it will allow for greater security and bandwidth, making interaction between browser-based apps and mobile devices more of a reality.
Browser-based apps will be easier to distribute and market as well, he adds, because it’s easier to drive users to a website rather than an app.
“That’s where our focus is going to be,” Verschuren says. “I see more of that happening and more of a push toward a centralized solution that serves it up to mobile and desktop devices without having to have a custom app.”
5G will also allow for more interactivity and augmented reality, says Drund’s Yi. Paired with physical changes of the devices from “a flat slab” to a more interactive device, it will create more opportunities, more problems to solve and more enhancements, he says.
“We’re all still limited by bandwidth and device,” he says. “Phones themselves will have to substantially change – and they’re going to. When they change is when these services will have to change.”