Apply an aptitude for apps

Jon Severs
Friday, October 15, 2010

Ethan Nicholas built one and it earned him $600,000 in a single month. Steve Demeter built one and he netted $250,000 profit in two months. Nicholas did it with a small military tank. Demeter did it with some floating triangles. Both did it on the iPhone. Clearly, the business of building applications, or 'apps', for Apple's game-changing smart phone handset can be a nice little earner.

And the print industry hasn’t failed to notice this potential. Several companies are testing the water to see if the mobile platform can work commercially in the print sector and the early signs are that, for the right app, you can expect a boost to your revenues, brand awareness and customer numbers.

However, apps require a massive investment and, unless you have the skills to home build like Nicholas and Demeter, the set-up costs can be so enormous that you never make your money back. Worse still, if you pick the wrong app to start with, you could also damage your brand.

It’s important, then, to think carefully before leaping on to a mobile platform. You need to have a clear idea and clear reasoning as to why it will work for a mobile user, according to app development company Engine Room Apps’ managing director Tobin Harris. He says simply transferring your website’s ordering process into an app is missing the point.

"From a technology point of view, the phone is a desktop computer in your pocket, so you could, in theory, mimic any process you do on your desktop," he says. "However, you have to look at the context. Is it something people want to do on the move? It’s possible to do many things on the mobile, but you have to ask yourself, ‘Why?’"

Harris says the ‘why?’ question is not asked often enough by those wishing to get into mobile platforms. Companies understand an app extends their reach into new client areas and adds a marketing stream, but they don’t know how to get involved. His company can help you develop an idea, but it helps to have some wood to make the fire.

"You need to have some idea of what you want to do, then we can develop the idea further. The client may not have grasped the true opportunities on offer," he reveals. "There is a lack of knowledge of which aspects are more complicated to achieve and also of the pricing of the build process. While something can look simple, it can often be incredibly complicated and require a lot of work and a lot of investment."

Hefty development costs
So, how much do you think it costs to build an app? You’re thinking £500? Most people make the same mistake, according to Tobin. In reality, once you have had your idea, you will, on average, spend around £10,000 developing it, though prices can easily exceed £50,000 for more specialised offerings. If you have the skills for an in-house build, you’ll only have to spend £60 on a developer’s licence from Apple – but app building is a specialised art so it is unlikely the majority of printers would have the internal expertise to do this.

Time wise, it is not a case of just sticking it on the app store either, the average build time is three months and Apple has to approve each and every app that appears on its store, so it could take longer. Apple also gets involved if you charge for your app, or if you allow advertising on it – it takes a cut of any revenue you make.

Building an app, then, is not as easy as you might think. Certainly, Julian Marsh, managing director of Minotaur Group, did not expect quite so many problems, or as much expenditure, when he decided to launch an app to drive work towards his newly acquired HP Indigo press.

"We did some research into the mobile-to-print platform and discovered it was a relatively untapped market," he reveals. "Trying to find a way of getting into this market was difficult, however, as people aren’t going to order business cards or the like on their phone. We were looking to get into trade photobooks at the time and the revelation came to us that you could order photobooks from your phone. So many people will now capture images using their phones as the quality has gone up such a massive amount, it seemed like the best route for us."

Marsh contacted a development company and, six months later, Picflicks – an app where iPhone photos are uploaded and converted into a 16-page A6 colour photobook costing £3.99 – was born.

Mobile friendly
But that makes it sound easy. In fact, Marsh describes the amount of work it took to get the product to market as "horrendous". Every process of the workflow had to be looked at, assessed and made mobile friendly. The user interface had to be planned and tested and even the method of postage – a printed address on page 16 made visible through a window envelope – had to be changed after the Criminal Records Bureau raised concerns about child safety (pictures of children in combination with a visible address was deemed risky). Also, an early attempt to create print-ready PDFs on the iPhone through the app ended up killing a colleague’s phone – mobiles just don’t have that much processing power.

Addressing all these concerns has resulted in an app that is a slick photo uploader for a niche product that has resulted in 30,000 orders from more than 40 countries. Despite the success, however, Marsh has as yet failed to recoup his costs.

"It has been a bit disappointing, but it is really exciting at the same time," says Marsh. "We haven’t covered our development costs at the moment, but the iPhone platform continues to develop as does our app and our product. For example, the next version of the app will ask if you would receive push messages – this will enable us to send out reminder messages and special promotions."

Marsh adds that one of the key successes of the app has been driving business to the main products the company offers, such as its trade photobooks. The marketing benefits of building an app also caught digital printer Moonpig’s eye. Its app gives access to a limited range of the company’s greetings card templates, along with a postcard template, on which they can place their iPhone pictures.

New brand platform
"We saw iPhone users as a new audience that we could recruit," says Moonpig IT director James Henson. "The iPhone app is a way of pushing our brand and is another platform to work off. When you use the app, there are restrictions on the functionality, but there is so much more on the website, so a customer we acquire on the iPhone platform will soon want to use us on the website. It is a great customer acquisition tool."

The functionality restrictions are down to the limitations of the mobile platform. Henson explains how the more complex Moonpig templates would be too onerous to work with on a mobile and slow down a process that is meant to be as sleek and easy as possible. This is something to bear in mind if you are thinking of dabbling with some app building: you have to know the limitations of the software and recognise the crossing point where functionality is compromised by the complexity of the product. On a mobile, the user is not going to hang around filling in data fields or waiting for more than a minute for a page to load, the process has to be fast.

So the complexities of building an iPhone app are numerous and the potential holes to fall down are multiple. However, ideas don’t have to be complex or necessarily original – Ricoh for example has launched its own QR code reader called iCandy – and the benefits for brand awareness and potential revenue streams can be substantial as Minotaur and Moonpig have begun to demonstrate.

Go into it realistically, with a concrete budget and a clear understanding of what you want to achieve and how, and though the sky-high revenues of the games developers like Nicholas and Demeter may be unattainable, your business could still benefit from a substantial boost by going mobile.

TOP TIPS
Building an app
  1. Research the mobile market Look for which applications are hitting the Top 500 download lists and assess what works and what does not – only by using iPhone apps can you begin to understand what they are capable of
  2. Work out an idea that fits your business It does not have to be original but it has to represent you accurately to the mobile user and be tailored to the platform
  3. Set a realistic and concrete budget Development costs can spiral, so work out how much you can afford to spend and formulate your app around what is possible within that budget
  4. Ensure the usability is as fast as it can be Mobile users don’t hang around and the process needs to be slick and easy to use
  5. Market your app Do not assume that people will somehow discover your app. You need to market it properly to bring it to people’s attention

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