The massive growth of the app market has coincided with the creation of a parallel niche industry — the proliferation of accessible, low-cost development alternatives to traditional shops and agencies.
But not all brands — or industries altogether — require diverse, expansive functionality in their apps. In the same regard, a lean approach to launch can move a unique product to market in a mere matter of minutes. For these brands, the process going forward is much as the same is it is for high profile, heavily touted launches: engage with customers, build off their response and expand and iterate in due time.
As the mobile applications market moves toward $25 billion per year, according to a MarketsandMarkets report, non-traditional development opportunities are emerging in a number of forms. Programs now allow everyday consumers to build apps through HTML, drag-and-drop platforms, customize templates and simply drop an SDK. These services are on the rise, and they’re worthy tools to keep in your arsenal.
Below are six platforms carving out their space in the market.
Beyond high profile clients like Wikipedia, which used PhoneGap to launch its official app on Android, iOS and Playbook, the service is utilized by development companies building for multiple clients. Sean Mahoney, CEO of AndPlus, LLC relies on PhoneGap to build for both large corporations and small startups. As a power user, he’s able to bring PhoneGap beyond its core capabilities.
“Moving to PhoneGap, we saw that we were able to set up our own development environments and thus develop and deploy extremely scalable, as-native-as-we-wanted apps for mobile devices,” Mahoney says. “For power users like AndPlus.com, we actually have created a PhoneGap deployment area that is exclusive to our clients. This allows us to create, use, and build apps that utilize plugins developed by our internal team.”
Cost: Free to use for development while in beta; support plans begin at $249.99 per year.
2. Branded Business Apps
Branded Business Apps touts a five-step app development process, which allows for the launch of iPhone, iPadand Android apps in less than 48 hours. Created largely for service industries — restaurants, churches, health clubs and hotels, among others — functionality is limited to a basic set of almost 40 features. According to Allison Birr, marketing and sales specialist for the brand, these features cover the needs of most small to medium businesses — Branded Business Apps’ core demographic.
This design approach is at the foundation of most inexpensive development alternatives. And the inability to extend beyond limited features is, in most cases, hardly a shortcoming for small businesses. The process begins with a design questionnaire, which dictates the content on a set number of screens and a limited amount of basic copy. Dropped into a template selected from a standardized list, the product is brought to fruition in a significant fraction of the time and cost otherwise required by full-fledged shops.
Following launch, content is managed by the client through a CMS that allows service-focused businesses a selection of unique capabilities, depending on their needs. This extends beyond providing customers with instant awareness of directions via GPS and specials via push notifications — integration with social networks, as well as audio and video services, means that musicians, professional speakers and other performers can actually distribute their own products, much as they would a podcast in the App Store.
Cost: Development costs begin at $399; monthly management begins at $39 per month.
EachScape takes a unique building-block approach, which allows it to avoid the use of templates most often responsible for the generic interface of inexpensive apps. “EachScape is a drag and drop environment where the user selects ‘blocks’ or components, integrates their content, customizes and is then able to generate apps for iOS, Android and HTML5,” explains Ludo Collin, CEO of EachScape.
This approach expands both the aesthetic and functional capabilities of EachScape apps. On the interface end, the platform allows users to select from an extensive list of functions, from the generic — horizontal panels, for example, which can be customized with copy and images — to the more complex, including Google ads, chat, HTML and video. From there, the apps are built in Objective C (for iPhone) and Java (for Android). As such, they maintain the operating systems’ native capabilities.
“We have built a platform that enables brands to cost-effectively build and manage apps across operating systems and devices. While we’re not ‘cheap,’ we enable our clients to build highly custom apps that can run on iOS and Android devices, in native code, as well as HTML5 for much less than working with a dev shop,” Collin explains. “We are customizable and feature-rich, unlike template solutions.”
Additionally, he notes, “clients can license the EachScape platform, bring it in-house and have multiple people with web-producer (rather than developer skills) building and deploying apps for the organization.”
On top of that, EachScape maintains a block marketplace, to which developers can provide code for functions that extend beyond those already available. The ability to request blocks, and thereby add components unique to your app, has garnered EachSpace a notable range of clients, including MTV, CBS and E!. “We are customizable and open,” Collin says. “If a client doesn’t have all the functionality they need, they can (or we can) build an additional feature block to accommodate the need and that becomes part of the platform.”
Cost: Licenses start at $2,500 per month.
Canvas focuses almost entirely on data collection applications for small businesses in a seemingly endless array of industries, from fishing to construction to transportation. The apps, which number in the hundreds, provide businesses with the ability to record and request data, then store and distribute through the Canvas cloud.
“Today 95% of businesses use clipboards and paper as the predominant means of data collection when they aren’t sitting in front of a computer,” says CEO James Quigley. “There exists tremendous potential for businesses to replace their clipboards with a smartphone or tablet, and for that reason the market for our product and similar approaches is global and very large.”
As an alternative to high cost app development, Canvas has created a marketplace where users are “sharing their experiences, providing very complete solutions off the shelf.” Construction businesses, for example, can immediately gain access to apps that provide forms and feedback for job cost estimation, building inspection requirements, employee time sheets and remodeling proposals. Customized for each business, they provide the appearance of self-produced software while simultaneously enriching practices. The apps are customized as necessary and provide a level of communication between businesses and their customers.
“All the data collected by our subscribers is then sent to our cloud, where it is converted to PDFs and forwarded back their customers, is made available to be searched and sorted, and can even plug into our clients’ back offices,” Quigley explains.
While of a slightly different strand than other services — these apps supplement existing business practices, rather than launch businesses themselves — even this low level of customization allows for the creation of branded apps at almost no cost.
“Leveraging a cloud platform is enabling organizations to gain speed to market, flexibility and affordability without sacrificing on the ultimate quality of the product or app,” Quigley says. “While more affordable application development may not include complete customization capabilities, the reality is that the large majority of businesses don’t need excessive customization.”
Cost: 50 cents per use of each app, $20 for unlimited monthly use, and $210 for unlimited yearly use.
Dave Messinger, chief architect of CloudSpokes, says his company is ” the first developer community that matches the cloud with the crowd — a true market where businesses tap into skills and pay for results versus effort, and where developers get access to a new world of opportunity to earn money for cloud development.”
The service, built by cloud solutions brand Appirio, allows companies to outsource any form of public cloud development work — entire mobile applications, Facebook pages and technical components for enterprises — in the form of a competition. After customers post a deadline alongside technical specifications, developers in the community submit entries, which are then judged by the customer or the CloudSpokes team.
“For developers, this approach creates a market for their talents, lets them develop new skills with real world assignments and transitions their careers to the cloud while establishing street cred as skilled practitioners,” Messinger says. “For companies (including Appirio), this means tapping into a developer ecosystem and paying only for the components of work that meet pre-agreed upon requirements.”
The success of CloudSpokes reflects the effectiveness an entirely unique approach to app development: A gamified network of freelance contributors. Current challenges range from the bizarre — a Python-based app that can create a route guiding users to every train station on a given system within 24 hours — to the highly practical, including an app to facilitate financial aid application processes by extracting information from existing tax files.
Cost: Project rate set by client.
6. Red Foundry
Chicago-based Red Foundry allows developers full control over the quality and cost of the platform, though VP of Business Development Stan Monlux has stark words for those who go the inexpensive route: “Honestly, cheap apps suck. If you want to build a cheap app on Red Foundry, you can certainly do it, but we have no interest in that market.”
Instead, Red Foundry has two primary goals. One is to allow companies to shift resources from writing code to creating great design, and the other is user experience and enabling brands to make money without gamification. The company makes money by taking a share of revenue from managing a commercial element and development services.
“We have fairly unique technology that allows fully native apps to be built and customized more like a web mashup, as opposed to starting from scratch,” Monlux explains. “The unique thing about this is that it allows apps (we call them Elements or Micro Apps) to live within other apps to provide highly contextual features that users want, such as booking a hotel through Expedia directly from the Fodor’s travel guide app without ever having to leave it.”
Through this technology, Monlux explains, app development can be completed on the end of the designers, whose capabilities will more often than not dictate the quality of the app from an aesthetic perspective. The Fusion Studio allows a drag-and-drop approach, while apps built in Xcode, Eclipse or other toolkits can achieve similar functionality through the inclusion of the Fusion SDK in a line of code.
“Speed versus native code isn’t much of an issue with our platform,” Monlux says. “The key to any great app is great design. Our best partners are design shops and developers with a carefully crafted vision for their UI. Red Foundry was built to support great designers, but in the end you need good UI design chops to build great looking apps.”
The use of any of these services comes with key sets of advantages and disadvantages — with the benefit of speed comes the sacrifice of functionality, while the expansion of capabilities brings with it additional costs and added time. In short, as Collin says, “Anything that seems to be too good to be true might be just that.”