Got an idea for an app? Here's a guide on what to do next
The smartphone has been around for longer than you might think – it was 1994 when tech giant IBM launched what is widely accepted as the very first. Named Simon, it was bulky and featured a touchscreen and a small selection of built-in apps, such as a calculator. It could also send and receive emails in a time when this method of communication was still very much in its infancy. Simon, however, was a sales disaster. Its battery life was a paltry one hour and it was pulled from the shelves just six months after its release, admitting defeat to a sleek new breed of mobile handsets that featured flip-up screens and rudimentary online capabilities.
Estimates vary, but it’s commonly believed that there are now 2.5 billion smartphone users around the world. The market for handsets is totally dominated by Apple (which quickly came to define the genre when it launched the iPhone 11 years ago), Samsung and Huawei. When the iPhone arrived on the market, it introduced the world to apps as we now know them. Short for “software application”, apps are basically shortcuts to programmes that sit on a mobile (or tablet) operating platform. Devices come preloaded with certain apps, while others can be either bought or downloaded for free via Apple’s App Store, Google Play, Microsoft Store, Amazon and a whole host of others.
When Apple launched its App Store on July 11, 2008, the iPhone was already a year old but, crucially, the 3G version was just heading to market. Initially just 500 apps were available for download, but now there are more than 2 million, with Google Play offering approximately a million more. Making restaurant reservations, checking flight statuses, reading the news, paying traffic fines, reporting offences, watching films and television, playing games, banking, dating, shopping, downloading music or identifying an obscure song – it seems as though whatever you want to do, there’s an app for it.
Some have made untold millions of dollars for their developers, becoming as ubiquitous as the smartphone itself. Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp, to name just three, have changed the way we communicate and interact with one another on a global scale. Apple reported, for instance, that on New Year’s Day this year, customers spent US$300 million (Dh1.1 billion) on purchases using the App Store.
If you're tempted to take a piece of that app pie for yourself, you're not alone. Research conducted by Google has ranked the UAE number one in global smartphone penetration and predicted that app development by SMEs will massively increase over the next few years. App creation is becoming more affordable and there are a number of reputable companies providing build services throughout the region.
Whatever the reason for developing such software, it starts with the simplest of processes, according to Oujith Bhaskaran, technical manager at MRM McCann in Dubai, the regional division of the global marketing and advertising company. “Write down the idea,” he says. Now that might seem obvious, but many of us have brilliant but fleeting ideas for things that we fail to write down. With all the will in the world, those thoughts soon become crowded out by other things and often we forget them entirely. You snooze, you lose, as the saying goes.
Assuming you still think your idea is good enough after researching existing apps, it’s time to sit down with a developer and brainstorm the idea to get the true picture about how much work will be involved and whether or not it is actually worth pursuing. “After this, it’s time to produce a breakdown [timeline] and list the milestones,” adds Bhaskaran, “then we would get the wireframes and design under way.”
For those unfamiliar with app-speak, wireframes are essentially the architectural blueprints that show how it will be built and structured – a simplified visualisation of the various functions and user interfaces. Once these have been agreed upon, the actual design work can commence, followed by development and testing. Once the app is ready to go, it’s released onto the various store platforms and you can either let it stay unchanged or choose to keep it maintained and developed further. That all depends on what your app is and what it does, but it’s worth remembering that, as hardware manufacturers update their operating systems to keep abreast with the new technology they’re rolling out, many apps fall by the wayside because they cease to be compatible. Potentially, then, having an app is very much a long-term commitment.
As for costs, how long is a piece of string? Bhaskaran says: “It’s the same as any project – it depends on the amount of work involved.” Sure, you can use so-called free app-building software that’s readily available online but it might be beneficial to consult and pay a specialist for such an important business tool. And, in case you were wondering, it might set you back between Dh10,000 and a couple of million – it all depends on what you want.
Once your app is ready and available for download, cautions Bhaskaran, don’t rely on the developers to promote it or spread the word. “It will need professional marketing; we developers are useless at this,” he confesses, and it would make a great deal of sense to budget for marketing and promotion activities right at the beginning. If nobody knows about it, how will your app ever make you any money? And let’s not forget that a locally developed app might benefit from being available in Arabic as well as English – something Bhaskaran says isn’t difficult, but should be decided on before the development phase.
As for monetising, don’t start planning your retirement just yet. Of the many millions of apps out there, relatively few are decent money-spinners, but there are a number of options available, even if your app is available as a free download. Advertising space can be sold to other parties, which can be annoying for users, but they tend to put up with it rather than pay. Apps can be cross-sold, with the free one linking to another of yours that has to be purchased, or you could offer your app for free, but with further functionality only available for a fee. Of course, your app might simply be an extension of your existing business and customer retention is the name of the game.
Whatever your reason for having an app developed, the fact remains that untold millions of potential customers are out there, possibly waiting for whatever it is you’ve got up your sleeve.
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Updated: September 4, 2018 09:00 AM