This is an expanded version of a presentation that I gave in class on the 23rd of March 2011. Original presentation (pdf).

How are apps produced and how could they work as an alternative or supporting publishing format for web content creators?

What is an App?

Strictly speaking ‘app’ is just an abbreviation of the word ‘application’ and so could be applied to any piece of software. However with the rise of the smartphone, and in particular the introduction of Apple’s App Store, it has acquired a more specific meaning: a software application which runs natively on the operating system of a smartphone or tablet computer. Although the word app was at one time closely associated with Apple’s iPhone, it has now assumed a more generic meaning.

This may well change again; the recent introduction of App Store for Mac has re-introduced the word in the context of desktop and laptop computers. For the purposes of this blog post however I’ll be using the word to refer to software running on portable devices.

What are the main mobile platforms?

There top four mobile platforms by revenue are Apple, Nokia, Blackberry and Android. The first three manufacture handsets and their operating systems are restricted to their own hardware. They distribute apps exclusively through their own app stores. Android is used in a range of handsets made by manufacturers including HTC and Sony. Although the cross-device Android Marketplace is the main distribution point for Android apps, Amazon has recently launched the Amazon Appstore to distribute Android apps (and found itself embroiled in a lawsuit with Apple over the use of the ‘App Store’ name), a potentially interesting development.

As can be seen from the table below Apple has by far the largest share of the market at the moment. However the year-on-year growth figures show that the other platforms are catching up, with the growth of Android and Nokia particularly impressive.

Source: IHS via AppleInsider

The increase in App sales is naturally driven by a huge increase in smartphone use:

Source: Online Marketing Trends

In 2010 the number of smartphone users in the UK increased by 70% to 11.1 million, and this trend looks likely to continue in 2011: Apple reported an 86% growth in global iPhone sales in Q1 2011 over Q1 2010.

What platform should a developer choose?

Although Apple has the strongest position in the market, its rivals are making up ground. And, as overall smartphone use grows, so too does the number of potential customers represented by each percentage point. This means that, even if there are budget and time constraints on a platform, it’s not necessarily a wise strategy to develop exclusively for the platform which has the largest market share. Given the cost involved however, it’s not necessarily going to be feasible to develop for four platforms.

The only way to make the right decision is to conduct as much research into your target market as possible. For example, Blackberry is still the most used platform for business use and has a number of enterprise level apps that aren’t available on other platforms.

If you already have a mobile site this process is made slightly easier, as in many cases you’ll have tracking data which identifies which operating system web traffic has come from.

How is an app developed?

App development is no different to any other form of software development, in that the code has to be written, compiled, debugged, compiled (again) and deployed. iPhone apps are programmed in a language called Objective C, Android and Blackberry apps are written in Java (although it is not as simple as deploying the same code across both phones) and Nokia apps are written in Symbian C++.

This means that a background in web design is not necessarily going to help you program an app, although the visual design and information architecture skills are transferrable. You’re therefore left with the choice of learning a new programming language, employing an app developer or outsourcing the project. The first of these comes at a high price to your time; the latter two at a high price to your wallet. There are development environments available, such as Cocoa for Apple iOs but they can only streamline the process.

Alternatives to programming from scratch do exist. There are drag-and-drop applications like Google’s App Inventor for Android, as well as cross-platform development environments like Appcelerator Titanium. However they come with their own drawbacks, since a level of control over fine detail is sacrificed for ease of use. They also won’t be able to compensate for a lack of programming experience and an understanding of application processes. In addition cross platform development requires a set of common source files which must be interpreted by the native operating system, creating additional process overhead.

This isn’t to say that these tools are not good tools: in many ways they are. A tool is only as good as the person using it though and, as with web development, there is no substitute for knowledge and experience.

How can native apps work as a supporting or alternative format for web publishers?

Essentially a native app offers a web publisher the opportunity to present the same content in a more user-friendly manner. Below are screenshots of the Guardian mobile site and the Guardian app:

As you can see, one of the immediate advantages is that more of the screen is available. Because there is no browser chrome, the custom controls can be placed in the space which would have been occupied by the browser navigation buttons.

Another advantage is that, whereas the functionality of the ‘more’ button could be replicated with a link, this would require another page request. On a mobile network, or even over 3G, this is going to cause a lag. With an app, the options are part of the programme so are available immediately. Of course the actual content itself is still fetched remotely, but speeding up the way in which pages are requested provides a faster more streamlined experience.

An app also gives you a way of monetizing content which is freely available on your website. Although there is some exclusive content, the vast majority of what is available from the Guardian app – which is £3.99 for a 12 month subscription – is available from their website for free. The enhanced experience provided by the app is a service worth paying for, but £3.99 is expensive for an app. Only a company with an established reputation would be able to charge such a high price.

The costs of the project also need to be weighed against the potential revenue. An additional complication is that by charging for content you potentially limit in-app advertising revenue. A popular business model has been to offer an ad-supported free version, and an ad-free paid for version. This has been very successful, but it means that users do not expect advertsing in paid-for apps.

This is a case of an app offering an alternative platform to the mobile website. Twitter, on the other hand, offers a different service which supports rather than entirely replaces the website:

Whereas the Guardian app tries to offer as full an experience as possible, the aim of the Twitter app is to provide a streamlined service. They don’t try to replicate the functionality of the website completely, but rather offer their key services in as user-friendly a way as possible.

Both of these apps are examples of a website knowing their audience, and offering them what they want.

Another consideration when developing an app is that, unlike the web which is currently a neutral, unregulated platform, as an app developer you are bound by the terms and conditions of the vendor. This depends on which platform you’re developing for. Apple for example operate a ‘walled garden’ policy. If you want to release an app for an iPhone or an iPad it has to be submitted to the App Store for approval. This also delays the release of updates.

Android on the other hand allows anyone to submit an app to the Marketplace. However the very fact that you are asking people to download and install a piece of software – regardless of its cost – puts an extra barrier between the user and your content.

Conclusion

The most important question, regardless of platform, is whether you should be developing an app at all. Predictably the answer is entirely dependent on the content of your website. A database driven website with lots of multimedia content, like the Guardian, is a natural fit for a native app. On the other hand a personal blog isn’t. You also have to make sure that the experience you are offering is better than the experience of your mobile website. This is especially true if you are charging for content that is freely available on your website. That said, offering a terrible mobile website but an expensive app is not going to endear you to your audience.

It also depends how people are going to find your content. If you expect people to come to your content throught a search engine, having an excellent app is not going to overcome having a poor mobile website. It’s unlikely that someone will install an app just to read one blog post.

An app can be be used to dramatically improve the delivery of your content, but it should never be used in place of a well developed mobile site. Even organisations with the most impressive Apps still offer a good mobile experience.

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