What are the advantages of mobile apps

Your own company app - advantages, strategy, problems

Alexander Roth

How do you actually create a company app? What are the costs and what are the technical differences between iOS, Android and Windows Phone? PC-Welt spoke to app developers: The way to your own company app is not necessarily as far as some might think.

EnlargeThe road to your own company app is rocky and by no means cheap.
© istockphoto.com/gradyreese

Imagine you run a small agency, run a barber shop, a craft business or even just work as a “one-man show” - and you have your own company app. You can use it to attract the attention of customers, employees or business partners. Because native, mobile business apps from small companies that can be found in Windows Phone, iTunes and Google Play stores are still not very widespread - at least in this country.

Why is that so? Especially in times when everything has to be mobile and chic? Is that because of the cost? Is it the creation effort, the lack of developers? Or even the lack of demand? Or are many SMEs simply not familiar with the possibilities that apps also offer in the small company environment? PC-Welt asked two developer companies of business apps about this and found fewer limits than possibilities.

The right app approach

The first quintessence is: When it comes to business apps, there are obviously two worlds. One of these two worlds revolves around what companies expect when they imagine their own app. If you believe the developers, it is clear from the first meeting with the customer that the customers have a significant need for advice from app specialists. Because the SMEs do not know where the possibilities and limits of apps are, and how many building sites in the company you open up with the decision for an app. This is at least unanimously reported by the developing companies that PC-Welt spoke to - in this case with app specialists from the Munich company Weptun and the Berlin app development company Creative Workline. Both companies have specialized in offering companies the creation and integration of native business apps for multiple platforms (Weptun: iOS, Android, Blackberry - Creative Workline: iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry).

So much for the first world. The other world arises from what the developers report when they talk about their customer projects. It turns out that the stories of business apps are often much more exciting than the app consumer might initially think. The possibilities of business apps are indeed impressive and far from exhausted: All those involved in the market - development companies, platform providers and customers - are constantly finding new ways to make apps even more effective in the business environment. One can say: Smartphones and their apps have not only had a lasting impact on people's lives, but also increasing parts of the business world and the processes in it. And this development seems to be only at the beginning, one believes the market researchers: According to the experts from Canalys, for example, the four major online marketplaces for apps - Apple's App Store, Google Play, Blackberry World and Microsoft's Windows Phone Store - have in the first quarter 2013 reached a download volume of over 13.4 billion euros, which equates to a growth of 11 percent compared to the previous year, business apps included.

EnlargeKlemens Zleptnig from Creative Workline

Why an app at all?

"Of course, the hipness factor is often the starting point" behind the request for an app, reports Klemens Zleptnig, technical director of the Berlin Creative Workline. “A lot of companies just think it's smart to run their own app. We see it as our task to work out the concrete added value for their business from the many exciting ideas of the customers and to accompany them from conception through development to marketing and support. "

Patrick Blitz, Head of Business Development at the Munich-based company Weptun, has also had this experience. But he adds: “If we talk to the companies for a long time, we find that the original idea for the app did not just emerge from a pretty idea, but always from a specific business need. Something is not running as effectively in companies as it can actually be. Companies want to meet this need in a modern way, even if they don't know exactly what an app can actually offer. ”Customers can usually only roughly formulate the goal: catchwords such as increased productivity, increased flexibility and more focused workflows quickly come up.

Especially when dealing with business partners, customers and sales representatives, the focus is on the need for shorter communication channels. Both development houses name so-called “catalog apps” as the classic and simplest example, quasi as an app entry point: catalog apps usually contain nothing other than content, for example in the form of PDF files. A company that has its advertising / inventory catalog for employees and customers on the web is faced with the regular task of making users and readers of this downloadable content aware that the content is constantly changing without an app. A catalog downloaded to the mobile phone the evening before - for example for sales representatives - can already be partly out of date by the time the sales representative arrives at the customer's premises. Catalog apps, on the other hand, always automatically deliver the latest content to the smartphone.

A perfect fit on the phone

In addition to being up-to-date, simple business apps also offer other advantages: While web apps (which are created in HTML5, CSS and Javascript) are used via the browser and always appear differently on the screen depending on the device type and display size, native apps are matched to the respective devices and allow easy, comfortable and often also visually appealing access.

"Native" in this context means that the apps were created on the basis of the official development tools and the platform provider. In the case of Windows Phone this is about Visual Studio, in the case of Apple it is the Xcode program, in the case of Android it is Eclipse. But developers don't have to go this way: Weptun, for example, uses its own development tool that enables native apps (what that is, more on that later) for various platforms and smartphone / tablet models from a uniform interface based on the JavaScript programming language to create.

Regardless of which form the programmers choose: In addition to their tools, the platform providers provide guidelines that provide developers with guidelines for the visual and technical design of apps. The approval processes that make the app officially available to everyone in the app shop, however, differ significantly from each other. Above all, Microsoft and Apple provide a kind of "APP-TÜV", the hurdle of which has to be overcome - because the app must first be approved by the respective app before it is officially released, unless it is a pure company app for a single company. Store operators (i.e. Apple for iOS apps, Google for Android apps and Microsoft for Windows Phone apps) are released - a process that can sometimes take a long time and cause additional costs if developers work improperly or their customers too vague advice on the appearance and design of the apps.

Back to the possibilities of apps: In principle, apps allow data streams from existing and individual company applications to be integrated. There are also standard components for elements such as calendar, card or e-payment functions. The interfaces, services and components are again differently “developer-friendly” and compatible depending on the platform, as Weptun and Creative Workline report. Basically, it can be said: Android is the most open, while Windows Phone is the most closed so far, at least as far as third-party systems are concerned, but this is now set to change with Windows Phone 8.

Where are the costs, where are the limits?

The many possibilities already show that there are hardly any limits to creativity when it comes to business apps. The programmers also confirm this: an app that talks to the ERP system at the same time, knows customer data, the associated map and calendar functions and also has a small memory game integrated at the same time, is not utopian. "In principle, almost anything is possible, especially when it comes to integrating existing data sets into an app," emphasizes Blitz from Weptun. “We can pack pretty much every business process, including the associated data streams from the company servers, into an app, and even do so alternately - including offline functionality and company look.” That means: You can also use the data records on the servers, such as a CRM system change via app. If you do this offline, the change will not be passed on until the smartphone is reconnected to a network.

Many corporate customers seem to know or at least suspect all of this, which would at least explain many of the “wild” inquiries that app providers are exposed to. According to them, the request is mostly in the direction of a mobile all-rounder that is compatible with every platform.

But as is so often the case in life: the costs speak a different language. Klemens Zleptnig from Creative Workline: "When we explain to the customer that creating apps is a separate process for each platform and that every interface can be an expense, the ideas are quickly reduced." Most of the time, the customer then opts for an app on the basis of a single platform, which is only intended for a single purpose, such as mobile access to existing data of the main company application or the graphical representation of the customer landscape via pins in a map app connected to the CRM system. Both companies emphasize that they also see it as their task to advise their customers on the choice of platform, application scenario and appearance. At Creative Workline, for example, this happens at the beginning of a customer project in the form of a workshop, where the functionality of an app is roughly outlined "on paper". Zleptnig likes to explain this with the analogy from building a house, where a plan must first be drawn up by the architect before the builder can move in with his team.

When asked about the costs, Weptun is very informative. "The costs depend heavily on the customer's programming know-how," emphasizes Blitz. In the event that a company has its own IT know-how in-house, the company offers its customers a development license based on its own development platform for 6,000 euros per app, although this price is only to be understood as a private label. In addition, there is 500 euros per activated platform (iOS, Android or Blackberry) and 25 percent on the total price as an annual flat rate for support and maintenance. Completely without your own IT know-how, a CRM connection as a mobile, tailored app at Weptun costs around 13,000 euros as an example.