In the Rush to Apps, Developers Suggest Browsing

by Sam Eifling  on Monday, Jun. 7, 2010 12:00 am  

In the two years since Apple launched its App Store, iPhone and iPad users have downloaded nearly 200,000 different apps more than 4 billion times. That's a lot of zombie-shooting games, Scrabble knock-offs, digital Zippo lighters and Twitter updates.

Apps range from the powerful to the frivolous, but despite their ubiquity, they're hardly standard-issue marketing tools. In Arkansas, marketing and development firms are for the most part counseling prudence to their clients. While you may want the cache that comes with offering an app, they're expensive to build, and aren't guaranteed to bring a better return than other forms of mobile computing.

"For us, the determining factor is will this application help [a user] have easier access to discounts of a particular product or service? Is it location-based?" said Bryan Jones, the director of interactive services at Little Rock creative firm Cranford Johnson Robinson Woods. "Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do something."

An app (short, simply, for application software) is a software program built for a specific device, whether that's an iPhone or iPad, a mobile phone running Google's Android operating system or a BlackBerry. (Those three platforms account for 85 percent of the smart phone market.) An app may be a standalone tool - there are apps for static tasks such as calculating a tip or translating a Japanese menu into English - or a program that accesses data through a wireless Internet connection or cell phone network. In that case, the data an app offers may change dynamically, whether it's telling you the nearest bank branch or feeding you stock updates.

If these sound like tasks that websites already do, and for free - well, in many cases, they are. And if you can access the Web via your mobile Internet device (as in-flight announcements tend to call them), then you might wonder why you'd pay an extra fee to fill up your phone's hard drive with more clutter.

Many apps are free; marketers reason that building a tool that you'll download is a way to keep a brand at the top of your mind and the front of your phone. But marketing and tech agencies are pushing many clients to invest in making their websites mobile-friendly before rushing to invest in apps.

"There's a lot of technology out there that's called an app when it's really just a mobile interface," said Marla Johnson Norris, the CEO of Artistotle Inc., an interactive marketing company in Little Rock. "The more things your mobile application is going to do, the more it costs."

Arkansas Apps

Arkansas firms have produced a small but growing number of apps. Aristotle recently built an app for Arkansas Parks & Tourism that guides users to restaurants and resorts. Hortus Ltd., the multimedia company of Little Rock's gardening maven P. Allen Smith, developed and in May released a gardening app with growing instruction and recipes for herbs and vegetables. "Our audience [is] out and about, and when they need help, figuring out what to do at the garden center, they need information quickly," said Mimi San Pedro, who runs Hortus' marketing. "It's hard to get on the website and find information. It's a lot easier when they get it on their iPhone or smart phone." Apple bit: The app was soon a staff pick in the company's app store.

The Conway Log Cabin Democrat debuted an app this spring developed by the Conway firm Clarovista that gives users access to the paper's news feeds, and included a Toad Suck Daze section to guide them through the annual street festival. According to Lee Watson, who calls himself the chief creative guru at Clarovista, businesses are still trying to understand the potential of mobile applications. "They're hearing the buzzwords," he said. "Not too many people are budgeting for it yet, but that's going to change pretty soon. Companies are going to look and say, it's got to be in the marketing program next year, not just in IT. We're hearing a lot of chatter."

Apps' strength, he said, is doing one thing and doing it well; most people don't need their banks' entire online banking system at their fingertips, and can navigate a few specific functions on an app more fluidly.




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