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Turnkey iPhone Apps Are Neat, Waste of Money

Everyone needs an iPhone app. Or so you'd think, give the launch of a new Web service called SWebapps. The site, which launched officially today, allows you to quickly and easily roll your own iPhone app and get it into the App Store for somewhere between $200 and $400, plus some monthly fees for hosting and optional analytics. Doesn't sound like much money for an iPhone app, right? But for most businesses, it seems more like an utter waste.


I've been talking to a lot of iPhone developers these days, and a pattern has emerged: they've noticed that companies far and wide seem compelled to produce iPhone apps ad hominem, even if they don't really need them. This, the developers reason, is incredibly stupid: when you don't really need an app, you end up with a limp, useless offering. That, in turn, makes your company look tech-illiterate and stodgy, and it waters down your brand. If you want to be a little socialist about things, it also clogs up the App Store approval process, which is constipated enough as it is.

But here you are with your corporate card at the SWebapps site, and it all seems so seductively easy. Before you start your Lincoln Log iPhone app, though, it's worth thinking about what an iPhone app is actually for. For that matter, what's a Web site for? What's the point of all this stuff?

Lots of SWebapps' app options are built for static content: one lets people follow you on Twitter, another lists contact info. There's a map button to find your business, a photo gallery, and a "catalog" button for inventory (users can browse, but not buy.) One cool button allows you to buy gift cards, and there are the requisite "news" and "awards" buttons. The pricing depends on how many of these "buttons" you want: the more buttons, the more expensive the app.

But static content does not make a good iPhone app. That's one of the reasons that this service doesn't exist on the desktop already: why do you need a prefab app to do what a Web site can do better? Sure, maybe these apps are really well-built, and they use MapKit and UIWebView to present maps and Web-based information within the app. Neat. But not worth an app, when a mobile site is both more practical and more accessible. Not everyone has an iPhone, at least not yet. And even if everyone did, they'd also have 9+ pages of apps on their device; an iPhone 3G S user can have upwards of 170 apps on his or her phone. If yours isn't a must-have, it's going to get buried.

Mobile sites, by contrast, are easy to build and cheap to contract. Build 'em in JavaScript, and they'll look great, interact snappily and work on any smartphone browser (think Gmail Mobile as one archetype). And since JavaScript is something like a lingua franca when it comes to Web development, there are plenty of 17-year-olds on your block who could code you up a nice one in exchange for a couple of Xbox games.

Don't like the cottage-industry route? Take your business's hard earned $400 and blow it on Google AdWords. If you live in a small city or town, or your business has a remotely unique name or trade, that'll last you the better part of a whole year of search-side advertisements. And it'll help you accrue new customers, something than an iPhone app can't do—it is, by nature, a product for people who would already be giving you business anyway.