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October 10, 2011

A Business App: Do You Need It?

There’s been a fair amount of app mania in the air ever since Apple launched its iPhone in 2007 and started selling apps via the Apple iTunes store.

Due to all the app hysteria in the marketplace, many businesspeople assume their business needs an app to stay relevant.

Well, I’m here to disabuse you of that notion.

Apps are great, but they only go so far. And they aren’t necessarily suited for every type of business. Before you go throwing thousands of dollars at an outside web development firm to produce an app for the iPhone, the BlackBerry and the Droid, think through exactly what you hope to accomplish. Chances are it’s not an app you need at all.

The Rise Of Mobile

Fueling all this app love is a staggering increase in the use of mobile devices. According to a report from Morgan Stanley in April 2010, people accessing the Internet with their mobile devices will outpace people accessing the Internet with their desktop computers by 2014. Meanwhile, tech research firm Gartner reported that worldwide mobile device sales totaled 1.6 billion in 2010, a nearly 32 percent increase over 2009.

If you’ve attended an industry conference in the last year or so, you’ve probably heard someone say, “Mobile is where it’s at, people. Get mobile or you’ll be out of business.”

Many executives return from such conferences and demand their web development teams create an app. But that request may be shortsighted, according to Jim Pond, co-founder and strategist at the Leominster-based marketing firm Compassed.

“A lot of clients ask for [apps],” Pond said. “The real question is do they actually need them.”

And here’s where some technical definitions are probably needed.

A mobile app is an application, just like Microsoft Word or Internet Explorer, that you run on a mobile device. The app is essentially a tool that lets a user accomplish something. For example, one of my go-to iPhone apps is from Pandora. It allows me to stream music on my phone for free. Another app is a NeoReader, which allows me to scan QR Codes—also known as smart tags or 2-D bar codes—using my phone.

Both apps help me accomplish a task.

So when someone says they need an app, the next obvious question should be, “To do what?” If you’re a manufacturer, you may want an app that allows your workers to scan product codes to track inventory. A restaurant may want an app that allows people to quickly place lunch orders with a few simple taps on a smartphone.

If you don’t have an answer to the to-do-what question, then chances are you don’t need, or aren’t ready for, an app.

But you probably need a mobile version of your website.

With 1.6 billion people across the globe using their smartphones to browse the web, it’s becoming increasingly important for businesses to format their websites to display and load quickly on mobile devices. If it’s not easy to find your Contact Us page from the tiny BlackBerry screen, then you may be missing an important sale.

So instead of fixating on app development, you may want to reorient your obsession to making sure your website is friendly to smartphones.

The good news is that a mobile version of your website doesn’t have to be a costly proposition, according to Bill Bowles, a web developer at Framingham-based marketing firm CommCreative.

All it entails is employing what’s known in the web development biz as “responsive web design,” Bowles said. Web developers can build sites today that recognize the size of the screen of the incoming visitor and then deliver a set of templates customized for that particular size screen. So if you visit a mobile-optimized site on your desktop computer, the web site code will recognize your screen size and produce a site that looks good on that screen. If you visit the same site on your iPhone, the code should recognize the smaller screen and produce a version of the site that’s formatted properly.

One site that does this very well is, the website for Wired Magazine. If you visit on your desktop computer or laptop, you’ll see a fairly traditional website formatted for a decent-sized desktop screen. But if you visit on your smartphone (or type into your desktop browser) you’ll see a site that’s formatted for a much smaller screen.

“The benefits of doing a mobile version of the website is that you’re not relying on one platform, whether that’s Android or Apple’s operating system,” Pond, of Compassed, said. “But the negative aspect is that you can do so much more inside an actual app.”

Bowles agreed, pointing out that apps tend to be a lot slicker in usability and feel. They also integrate better with features specific to mobile phones, like GPS.

The important thing is to invest carefully with an end goal in mind. And think about the future.

“You can’t just develop for today, because the minute you launch it, it’s out of date,” Pond said. 

Got news for our Digital Diva column? E-mail Christina H. Davis at

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