Age of the app
Getting your business on board with applications
ONCE THE worldwide web became mainstream, businesses began scrambling to get online. Whereas before websites were a specialised affair they became something every business had to have. The same is happening for mobile applications – or “apps” – with the rise of smartphones, tablet devices and online app stores from the likes of Apple and Google.
However, apps are generally more complex than websites. And whereas there are many design agencies that can help you with the former, the world of mobile application development is somewhat trickier. So where to start?
The first decision to make is whether or not your business really needs an app. There’s a lot you can do via the web and most smartphones have browsers capable of handling sophisticated websites.
Playboy couldn’t release all its content via an Apple-vetted application so instead it created a web application, essentially a special website, for the iPad so issues of the magazine can be accessed.
But there may be good reasons why your business wants an app, either for your customers or for internal use by your staff.
Matthew Buckland, MD of Creative Spark Interactive in Cape Town advises businesses must ensure they know what they’re in for. “The application world is an expensive world because the platforms are relatively new and constantly evolving,” he says. “There are also multiple platforms and screen sizes you have to account for. Application platforms are unlike the web, where you generally build once. You have to build multiple times using different languages and developers and often have to adjust the functionality of an app for each platform.
“The devices for which you’re building these apps also demand rich, involved functionality and design. So it’s an expensive but rewarding world for a business.”
Buckland says Creative Spark has developed apps for both big and small companies. “But it’s not just about the size of the company or budget. Whether a company wants to have an app strategy would depend on how core applications are to its broader digital strategy and whether there’s a good fit with its current customer base.
“For those with small budgets and who want to just test the environment, we recommend highly templated app builder solutions. AppMakr.com or Mobile Roadie are examples for iPhone and Android. We’ve done that for the National Arts Festival, which has a great looking iPhone app.”
But Buckland’s point about the diversity of mobile platforms stands. Do you go for iPhone and Android? What about BlackBerry? Or the thousands of feature phones still on the market?
One South African company has spent six years developing a solution to that problem. Virtual Mobile Technologies, based in the Cape, has created a mobile development platform that allows the central development of applications that can then be rolled out for multiple mobile phone operating systems. It’s called RAMP and is beginning to create a stir with developers.
Virtual Mobile CEO Wilter du Toit says there are other, similar development kits available worldwide but they don’t address emerging markets effectively. “Most of them are focused on iPhone and Android,” he says. “But RAMP supports feature phones and BlackBerry as well.”
In emerging markets such as SA and India feature phones still make up the vast majority of the market. And while the smartphone market is growing, there’s still a long way to go.
Du Toit says security is also a potential concern when you’re conducting crossplatform development and RAMP has a high level of certified security. “When new platforms come to the market – as we’re now seeing with Windows Phone – that can also create a problem because now you need to create your application for the new system. But with RAMP we’ll add new platforms as a module and then developers using it will be able to deploy their application for the new operating system without having to recode it.”