- An app, or software application, isn't directly accessible on the internet. Rather, it must be downloaded on a smartphone or tablet.
- Mobile websites are responsive sites that automatically scale to fit the screen size of your viewer's device.
- The advantages of having an app are that it allows you to send push notifications to your customers (with their permission, of course) and often can be used offline.
A lot of people wonder, but not many people have the guts to come out and ask, "What is an app?" Perhaps a better question might be, "What makes an app an app?" Sure, you use apps every day, and you know lots of businesses have their own apps, but when it comes to what differentiates an app from a mobile website, most people draw a blank.
It's important to understand the difference between an app and a mobile website, because they do have a lot of crossover, but they also have different strengths and weaknesses. To stay current and promote your business online, you need to know what's available to you.
If you own a small business and feel a little lost in the world of apps, software, and mobile websites, keep reading, because this guide is for you!
What is an app?
"App" is an abbreviated term for "software application," and one of the defining features of an app is that it must be downloaded on a device for the user to access it. Apps are built primarily for use on mobile devices, like smartphones and tablets. Many software companies make app versions of their products so users can access their software's functionality on mobile devices.
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Why are apps important?
Before smartphones and tablets were a thing, websites were created to display on laptop and desktop computers. The designs of such websites were unresponsive, which means they did not naturally scale to different screen sizes and were difficult to view and use on smaller screens. This was not problematic at first, because no one was trying to view websites on smartphones or tablets. Once mobile devices became popular, though, the disadvantages of these website designs became clear.
Then, mobile websites emerged, and many SMBs with existing websites created mobile versions of their sites so users could easily view them on the go and use them with touchscreen devices, sans mouse.
For some time, apps, websites, and mobile websites all existed in separate buckets, but now, responsive websites are becoming the norm and the lines are blurring.
What are the advantages of developing a business app?
There are several advantages to developing an app for your business. First, apps allow businesses (assuming the app user agrees) to send out push and/or in-app notifications. The ability to reach a customer base that is already aware of your brand and interested in it (otherwise, they wouldn't have downloaded the app in the first place) is tremendously valuable. Note that many users opt out of notifications, however.
Another benefit of apps is the ability to use them offline. While most app functions, like accessing maps and making in-app purchases or calls, only work online, the basic information in the app (such as store location, hours, menus and products) can be accessible even without service.
How do I build an app?
There are three main routes you can take to build an app for your business. If you want to build your app in-house, you'll need a team of developers at your disposal. Most small businesses don't have that, which leaves the other two routes: hiring outside developers or using app creation software.
Hiring an app developer
Hiring an app developer is just like hiring a graphic designer, patent lawyer or any other professional service. There are companies that specialize in creating apps for small businesses, and there are individual developers who work as freelancers or contractors.
While the outside-hire route is more expensive than app creation software, it gives you far more freedom to create an app that's truly customized and unique. If you have specific functionality or security and compliance needs, an app developer is probably the right option for you. If your budget is tiny and your needs are basic, try app creation software instead.
Using app creation software
There are lots of mobile app development products out there, offering a staggering range of options in process and quality. Some app development tools require only basic skills to use; these are usually referred to as "drag-and-drop" format. Other app creation software requires you to know some development and programming skills to complete the customization process.
Generally, the drag-and-drop app makers are cheaper and easy to use but not the most customizable. They tend to be template-based and somewhat limited in scope, but they are a great option for basic app creation, especially for small businesses.
Are there downsides to creating a custom business app?
Creating, publishing, publicizing and maintaining apps can be more time-consuming than managing a mobile website. First, if you want to reach people who use Apple and Android products, you'll have to submit your app for approval in both the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store. The guidelines for acceptance into app stores are not written in stone, and as they change, you will have to make sure your app stays in compliance with the rules. Additionally, most businesses require a website as well as an app, so if you go the app route (unless you plan to forgo websites altogether, which is inadvisable), you'll probably also need to create a website.
Another obstacle you may face after creating a business app is getting people to find and use it. This may not be an issue if you own a well-established business and have a marketing plan in place to tell customers about your app, or your app offers some valuable functionality to users.
Should I build a responsive website instead of an app?
Both apps and websites are simple to create, but for SMBs that are not tech or app-specific companies, a responsive website is the best option. Apps and responsive websites (also called mobile websites) have many of the same options, such as one-click calling, social sharing, e-commerce and click-to-map navigation. However, phone space is limited, and apps require a download, while responsive websites do not. Most customers of local businesses search for information in a regular browser, and a responsive web design will allow them to connect with your business from anywhere, without additional marketing to point them to your app.
Responsive websites are also easier to maintain than apps. When you need to update a piece of information, all you have to do is change it once in the responsive website editor and it will automatically make the changes across all device types, regardless of the operating system.