Services that do the coding for you make it easy for nontechies to create iPhone apps. Applications to the Apple App Store are exploding
Tom Johnson is no engineer. But that didn't stop him from creating software that helps him market his wedding-video business. Johnson crafted an application, downloadable to the Apple (AAPL) iPhone, that plays a sample video, connects users to a blog, and lets would-be clients call his company, Alliance Video Products, by pushing a single button. Best of all for a non-engineer like Johnson, he did it in a single day, without writing a single line of code.
To create the app, Johnson relied on a company called Swebapps.com, one of a new crop of services that help clients order up their own smartphone apps—often in less time and for less money than it would take to develop an app from scratch. Like Alliance Video Products, churches, museums, schools, and other small businesses of every stripe can now get into the app-making game—creating downloadable games, travel guides, quizzes, and blog feeds—thanks to sites like AppBreeder.com, GameSalad.com, and MyAppBuilder.com. Often all it takes is plugging specs into online templates.
As it gets easier for non-techies to make them, the already swiftly expanding market for these downloadable apps is likely to grow at a faster pace. That means even fuller shelves at online shops such as the Apple App Store, Google's (GOOG) Android Market, Research In Motion's (RIMM) BlackBerry App World, and Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows Marketplace for Mobile. The number of apps downloaded through these kinds of stores may surge to 18.7 billion in 2014, from about 491 million at the end of 2008, according to consultant Ovum. That may result in sales of $5.7 billion in 2014, up from $367 million last year, Ovum says.
Small businesses view DIY apps as a low-cost way to market their wares. Johnson paid $300 up front, plus a $30 monthly fee. Since its September debut, Alliance Video's Video Pro has generated 10 leads and two sales, making it a more effective marketing vehicle than placing an ad in a bridal magazine, Johnson says. "We deal with a lot of young brides and grooms, and they love the iPhone," he says.
Some sites charge nothing up front, while others invoice as little as $99 a year or $20 a month for users to create an app. That's substantially less than the $2,000 to $10,000 professional programmers typically charge per project. Nontechnical users are guided through menus where they can input information and select logos, colors, and buttons. "It's way less expensive," says Dan Simons, a principal at Vucurevich Simons Advisory Group, which used Swebapps to create an iPhone app for a restaurant it manages. The app lets users make reservations and see the menu and wine list. "They've done all the brain surgery on the back end," Simons says. "Yet what you end up with is a fairly custom application" costing, in his case, about $1,000.
Since its Aug. 18 debut, Swebapps has signed up about 800 customers. About 30 of their apps have gotten approval from Apple to be sold at the App Store. The company expects to put out 60 applications a month by 2010, quadruple current volume, says Swebapps CEO Magaly Chocano. "Our market is like what Web sites were 10 years ago," she says. "Now you can't do without one." Since launching its templates in July, AppBreeder.com has gained 1,300 members and is adding about 100 new users a week, more than double the number it added in August. It says members plan to submit more than 700 apps to the App Store in November.
While most templates are fairly simple, several do-it-yourself Web sites also offer advanced functions. AppBreeder.com, for instance, can tap into iPhone location information. So a Realtor can offer different house and condo listings to people in different towns. And a grocery can send mobile coupons to iPhone users when they're inside a store. And Swebapps lets customers update content in real time. That means restaurants can change specials several times a day, and real estate agents can remove listings of houses that have sold.
Some sites, such as Gendai Games's GameSalad.com, charge annual subscriptions plus fees for additional services. Its basic service costs $99 a year, while one with features such as customer support cost $2,000 a year. Many sites also charge monthly hosting fees.
In some cases, app-making sites charge little, if anything, up front and instead take a portion of sales. Book-app maker eBookApp.com charges nothing to create apps that help authors and publishers promote books through the App Store but receives 50% of sales of books sold through the apps. MEDL Mobile's AppIncubator.com solicits ideas and then does the legwork designing and coding apps in exchange for a portion of the sales generated by the software.
Some analysts believe professional programmers may still be the way to go for many small companies. With do-it-yourself apps, "there could be quality issues, there could be distribution and security issues," says Sean Ryan, an analyst at consultant IDC.
DIY sites, though, are working hard to prove him wrong.