In the Rush to Apps, Developers Suggest Browsing

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.

Cha-Ching

Cost will remain a major obstacle to app development. Ballpark prices might range from $5,000 for what Norris called a "pretty powerful mobile interface" up to $15,000 to $35,000 for "a really rich experience." But that cost is only per platform, so reaching iPhones, Android phones and BlackBerries will triple the price. A marketing firm has to be able to show a return on that investment into apps, because typically the budget for an app will come out of a company's existing marketing budget.

"The splinternet" is what Jones dubs this world of fractured platforms and diffuse access points to the Web. No wonder many companies will simply customize a pre-packaged app they can buy for several hundred dollars, or in the case of location-based marketing (apps' forte) plug into a social media program such as FourSquare, Gowalla or Loopt. "Before we get to a place where we talk about creating your own application, take advantage of applications already in use," Jones said.

The rise of mobile Internet access has changed developers' view of the Web as much as it has opened up a world of mobile applications. Morgan Stanley's Mobile Internet Report in 2009 predicted that mobile Web access will surpass access via personal computers within five years. "What we're doing with all our Web development is making it quicker to download, quicker to use," Norris said. "This isn't only the future; it's now."

Rockfish Interactive in Rogers built an app for Arvest Bank that took advantage of the iPhone's GPS, that allows users to find the branch nearest them, and an app for Johnson & Johnson that incorporated gaming and a user's iTunes library. But those are the exceptions for companies' mobile computing needs, said Jerry Osmus, the vice president of mobile at Rockfish. Unless an app takes advantage of a smart phone's camera or its positioning abilities, its mobile browsing capability is more imperative. That means building WAP sites - short for Wireless Application Protocol - that can interact with the range of smart phones.

"Apps are the glory thing; they're the big shiny object," Osmus said. "If you go back 10 years ago when all of the rave was visual basic apps running on PCs, it's kind of the same paradigm, and all of that shifted to the Web because of broadband and all the functionality served up on Web pages. I could say you could see that same shift in the next couple of years: people moving away from app and to WAP.

"Your 3G networks are all going 4G," he continued. "Mobile Web browsing is going to continue to go places. Apps are a little more elegant, a little more user friendly, but as networks continue to evolve, browsing is getting faster."