This post was updated April 8, 2014, to reflect the ever-changing mobile application development landscape.
Many small businesses sill shrug off the idea of creating a mobile app but the case for doing so continues to become stronger, not just when it comes to engaging more effectively with customers but for empowering employees.
I wrote about one example of the latter scenario last month: ski and board shop Mount Everest in Westwood, N.J., created a mobile app to extend its LightSpeed point-of-sale (POS) solution so that the sales team is alerted when priority orders arrive. Its app helps the retailer boost credibility with certain search engines by responding more quickly. "This was essentially the only way to play. We wouldn't be able to do what we are doing without it," said Ryan McGarry, manager of e-commerce operations for the retailer.
I mentioned two similar examples involving FileMaker late last year. One is eco-friendly pet manufacturing company West Paw Design, which created an iPad app for its warehouse and inventory workers to eliminate paperwork and speed processes based on real-time information. "They can make autonomous decisions about what to produce for the customer," said Spencer William, founder of the company.
As more people become familiar with mobile apps, this trend will only continue, and it's a pretty good bet that this will accelerate dramatically over the next three years, if you consider ongoing data collected by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project.
According to one of its findings, as of mid-to-late 2013, more than 50 percent of those surveyed by Pew Research had downloaded at least one mobile app. Yes, that's only half of the respondent base, but it's double the percent of smartphone and tablet users who were doing so just a few years ago. The percentage is very generationally dependent: it was a whopping 77 percent with those younger than 30 years old, slipping to 59 percent among those from 30 to 49, and 33 percent of those 50 to 64 years old.
Still, it's not all that hard to envision a scenario just five years from now in which mobile applications represent a dominant way in which to "transact" with their customers—whether that transaction means an actual purchase or whether a mobile application is a conduit for an appointment, an order, customer service, whatever.
Should your small business use some sort of mobile application to reach out to customers or rethink certain business processes internally? My past blogs about mobile application development resources for those interested in taking on that challenge still generate credible readership traffic, so it seemed like a reasonable juncture to update the list that I first started assembling in April 2012.
Those of you who HAVE looked at that resource in the past will know that I'm keeping my eye out ONLY for those sites, services or solutions that can be used quickly by members of your own team who aren't necessarily tech-savvy. This list DOES NOT include professional toolkit, or enterprise mobile development platforms that require someone with a programming degree. Nor does it include service bureaus that provide custom design or development. The focus is on do-it-yourself (DIY) resources that allow mobile apps to be assembled quickly. Here's my original list, plus a few additional resources, circa April 2014. As before, these resources are listed alphabetically.
- Appmakr, now part of Infinite Monkeys (Apple iOS, Windows Phone, Android; paid plans start at $9 per month plus a $199 one-time fee for self-publishing capabilities) - If you're looking for simplicity, this barebones development service lets you build a native Android app plus HTML5 mobile Web site for free, if you allow in-app advertising. The service includes analytics, along with RSS and push services to help you market your mobile app when it's finished.
- AppNotch (Android, Apple iOS, HTML5; paid plans start at $18 per month) - This service includes a prototyping option for mocking up your mobile applications before committing too deeply. It offers a wide variety of templates and there is a 30-day trial period.
- App Press (Android, Apple iOS; entry-level plan starts at $30 per month) - This four-year-old cloud-hosted development platform was designed with image in mind: the focus is on helping small businesses create highly visual mobile apps. One notable feature is an instant preview function. The entry plan includes 10 gigabytes (GB) of storage, 5 GB of bandwidth and up to two projects.
- AppsBuilder (Android, Apple iOS and HTML5 Web; pricing starts at approximately $13 per month, depending on euro exchange rate) - "You imagine it, we build it" is the slogan of this mobile apps design platform. Among other things, the platform supports the inclusion of QR codes. AppsBuilder has been used to create more than 500,000 apps so far.
- Attendify (Android, Apple iOS, HTML5; starts at $399 per year per event) - The specific focus of this development platform is to support companies that run events, and that want to create mobile apps with schedules and content to support them. It also offers features meant to encourage attendee engagement, such as an activity feed or messaging.
- Bizness Apps (Android, Apple iOS; $59 per month for native app) - The platform contains specialized templates for small businesses including bars, restaurants, lawyers and realtors. You can customize the design, though, and get an online preview as you move along. The service includes a free mobile Web site.
- BuildAnApp (Android, Apple iOS, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile; starts at $19 per month depending on platform) - The company has created a six-step process for building either mobile native apps or one that can be viewed with a mobile Web browser. It offers a feature that lets your visitors "click to call" from within the app.
- Huzzah Media, formerly AppExpress (Android, Apple iOS, HTML5; pricing is $65 per month for a native mobile app) - This platform supports development of mobile apps for appointment scheduling, handling invoicing and accepting payments, messaging and marketing with coupons (among other things). You can also use it to create a mobile Web site.
- iBuildApp (Android, Apple iOS; pricing starts at $9.99 per month) - More than 450,00 mobile apps have been created with this rapid development platform over the past two years. All plans include analytics, and the company also highlights its management capabilities, which easily accommodate updates.
- Infinite Monkeys (Android, Apple iOS; pricing starts at $12 per month for a native mobile app plus HTML5 Web site) This is the sister service to Appmakr, which it acquired last year. It focuses mainly on social or "fan" apps that help restaurants, retailers, organizations and individuals build apps that have a social twist to them. The company runs an Android marketplace where it features apps built on its platform.
- JoeMobi (Android, BlackBerry, Apple iOS, Windows 8; $1,499 for a one-year commitment that covers native apps for all of these platforms) - The platform is a plug-in for WordPress that transforms sites or blogs into basic mobile apps.
- Magmito (Cross-platform; $9.99 per month to keep app active up to one year plus $99.99 for unlimited updates) - Supported by Sprint and Telefonica, the service is aimed at helping small businesses create mobile apps that can include, text, images, RSS feeds, feedback forms and click-to-call features. This is meant for temporary apps, or those with a shelf life.
- Mippin App Factory (Android, Apple iOS, HMTL5, Windows Phone; $99 for an app pack that include an HTML5 iPhone app, native Android app and mobile Web site, $999 per app per year for native versions) - The platform lets content owners pull together mobile applications quickly using RSS feeds, either in a cross-platform format or one optimized for native platforms.
- MobBase (Android, Apple iOS, HTML5; prices start at $5 per month for mobile Web version or $20 per month for a native app, along with a set-up fee that varies depending on the platform) - The specific focus of this tool is to help companies or individuals reach their mobile fanbase, so the focus is on media and content within the application templates.
- Mobile Roadie (Android, Apple iOS; $125 per month) - This service boasts a number of familiar brands (and individuals) as customers, including the NFL, Cirque du Soleil and Adele. The focus is on letting virtually anyone assemble a mobile app and extend their identity to a mobile Web site. The differentiator is the ability to update often and quickly.
- MobileAppLoader (Android, Apple iOS; depending on whether you want to publish for more than one platform and the support your team needs, pricing starts at $5.99 plus set-up fees) - This offering includes all sorts of templates for the needs of small—it supports everything from car dealerships to contractors to restaurants to hair salons. Those templates translate into speed of development, although the features are limited.
- Orbose (Android, Apple iOS; published pricing for businesses is about $40 per month) - The company behind this offering, Enigma Systems, promises a big reduction in development time for those who don't have any programming knowledge. The platform supports development of apps that can accommodate push notifications, appointment scheduling, payment processing and social media plug-ins.
- Mobile App Maker (Android, Apple iOS, HTML5; pricing starts at $19.90 per month for an HTML5 app) The platform is a spin-off of a larger development company, Shoutem, focused on mobile application development. It is meant for small businesses that want to publish an ongoing stream of content and information to a mobile app. You need the advanced version, priced at $49 per month, to go native.
- ViziApps (Android, Apple iOS, HTML5; starts at $99 per month plus publishing fee of $395 per month for up to five apps) – The focus is on mobile apps that front end business processes, such as accident reporting or retail management. One thing that differentiates this platform is its support for lots of different back-end data sources. The company figures it takes about one week for a small businesses to develop a well-planned mobile app; updates are free under the service plans.
- Widgetbox – The service was discontinued in late March 2014.
- Windows Phone App Studio – If your company's preferred platform is Windows, Microsoft is beta-testing this drag-and-drop development resource that includes templates and designs for its mobile platform.
- Wix – For small businesses that already use the Web publishing resources of Wix.com, the developer last month acquired code-free mobile app development platform Appixia. The focus of the platform, currently in transition, is on creating mobile commerce apps.