The obvious and not-so-obvious costs to build a mobile app

Enterprise apps are not Flappy Bird. App development requires the same care and investment as any other end-user software project.

There's a view that building mobile apps is a quick-and-easy process -- design and code an idea, get it approved in an app store, and wait for the cut of revenues to roll in.

iPad photo by Joe McKendrick 5-2013
Photo: Joe McKendrick

However, for enterprises, designing, building and deploying apps requires all the care and resources that any other type of software product requires. Unlike Flappy Bird, an enterprise mobile app not something that can be thrown out there, then withdrawn on a whim. The requirements need to be worked out up-front with the business, the right vendors need to be selected (if an outside vendor is involved), and the app will need constant review and updating to stay current and of interest to end users or customers.

A few months back, I had a chat with the VP of marketing of a major west coast property developer and mall owner, who recounted the process she and her IT team engaged in to design and build an app for customers of one of its shopping centers. The process took well over a year and a half, starting out with multiple interviews with outside design teams. "We met with dozens of different companies, who came in and showed us what they thought our app should look like, but frankly it was all very boring. and definitely not what our brand stands for," she said. 

With mobile apps, end-users only spend a few seconds on the phone, so the app really needed to reach out and grab them, and serve a purpose. Once the design of the app was approved, they needed to decide whether to deploy to iOS or Android. (They decided to start with iPhone.) Once the app was finally tested and released, there was a constant need to keep it fresh and updated.

Again, mobile app development and deployment requires the same care and investment as any major software project. In a post which appeared last year, Matrix Software calculated the costs of building iOS and Android apps. It demonstrates that substantial organizational resources still need to go into mobile app development.

Matrix, an offshore development house, has a vested interest in posting these calculations, of course -- but the analysis is balanced and they also incorporate a seasoned view of the scale of investment required for enterprises:

Hourly developer rates: Anywhere between $40 up to $120, depending on skills, availability and developers' location.

Project costs: Anywhere from $3,000 for rapidly deployed simple apps to $30,000 for larger, more complicated and more configurable iPhone apps.

Additional unforeseen project costs: The post cautions that going for the lowest development rates may actually cost more in the long run. "Offshore development rates are cheaper than U.S. hourly rates, but there is also a higher rate of client dissatisfaction.  Communication, working hours and cultural differences can be challenges which are difficult (or impossible) to overcome."

Development time: "Anywhere from a couple of weeks for something simple, all the way up to several months depending on complexity (and developer availability)."

Availability of developers: This is a matter that may also drive up prices. The post notes that "talented iPhone app developers will tend to gravitate toward larger, more profitable, and/or longer term mobile app projects.  Smaller software development projects tend to be more difficult because of limited budget and shorter timeline."

Getting quotes/reviewing portfolios: As noted above, the process of really getting the type of app you want requires up-front work with designers, developers (whether in-house or part of an outside service), and most importantly, the business.