One of the fastest growing small business niches is software development. Consumers have computers with them at nearly all times. If they’re not at a desktop or laptop computer, they have smartphones and tablets. All sorts of other devices are becoming mini computers as well, and all of those computers, from the biggest to the smallest, need software. There is good money in developing programs that people want to use.
In particular, smartphone app development has taken off in recent years. We’ve hit a critical junction in 2013, as smartphones are expected to pass feature phones in number. We might have hit that point already, given that we’re at the mid-year point. That means more opportunities than ever to create software, since more people than ever are buying and downloading smartphone apps.
While almost no smartphone software developer is a stranger to the cloud, almost none of them take full advantage. That’s because Apple set a standard with the App Store, and Android followed with Google Play. These two compose more than 90 percent of the smartphone market share in the US, so it’s tough to avoid their distribution channels. Yet there is a better way for smartphone development, for both developers and consumers. Smart developers will try to get ahead of the curve and take advantage early.
State of smartphone apps
Very few smartphone apps are based on your browser. For the most part you download a smartphone app from an App Store, and the program lives on your homescreen as an icon. It’s a fairly simple interface that has worked exceedingly well to this point. But there are a few downsides to living in the current app ecosystem.
The first downside is discoverability. People find out about smartphones in precious few ways. Getting featured in the app store itself is the most powerful, since people necessarily open the store before downloading apps. Word of mouth is also powerful, as a mention from a reputable blog can drive thousands of downloads. The search function can help, but is largely unreliable, especially when finding new apps from unknown developers.
That is to say, getting discovered becomes extremely difficult for new app developers. It takes huge marketing efforts to build momentum, and many of these startups don’t have the funds, or the know-how, to pull off such a feat. You can develop a world-class app, but if no one knows about it there’s little benefit.
Another downside is the ability to push updates. Apple makes this especially difficult, requiring an approval process before you can offer an update. Even then, users have to manually update the apps (they do have an Update All option, but you still have to click into the App Store to see it). Google is a bit better with this, offering automatic updates. But this has its drawbacks as well, mostly in the form of security vulnerabilities.
So while the current system works, because the two biggest players have set it up this way, there must be a better way.
One of the major problems with early smartphones was the web browser. For years, while it dominated the market, BlackBerry was roundly criticized for its slow, clunky, low-res browser. Yet it wasn’t even the worst of what was available. Apple finally came along in 2007 with mobile Safari, which was a huge improvement — but still wasn’t up to the standards we could imagine.
Smartphone apps stemmed not only from Apple’s desire to create a profitable ecosystem, but also from the limitations of browsers at the time. Developers didn’t have the tools to create compelling mobile browser applications even if they wanted to — and you can see plenty of evidence of this in early-stage mobile websites, which were basically links on a page.
Today both iOS and Android have stepped up the browser game. Safari has moved forward by leaps and bounds. Google has released Chrome for Android, which might be the best mobile browser on any platform. Best of all, they both support HTML 5, which adds many crucial features to the HTML language. That is, mobile browsing is so much better than it was in 2008 that it’s difficult to imagine how we used our mobile browsers even those five years ago.
Browser based apps might not be feasible, because of the ingrained distribution systems. But they can provide many advantages for both consumers and developers that might have impacts in the future.
Advantages of cloud apps
Again, app developers are no strangers to the cloud. Almost all smartphone developers have servers that they use to store data in the cloud. In fact, that has become a must. To miss out on this is simply bad business. About five years ago my company bought QuickBooks accounting software for Mac. We all had Macs, so we could all install it. The problem came when reconciling data.
Thankfully, QuickBooks soon came out with a web-based version, so we not only had our data close at hand, but also the app itself. We could go anywhere and log into QuickBooks to view or edit our data. That’s the way the smartphone app should really work. Instead of having to download the app data, and then all of the updates, the app can live on the developer’s servers.
Developers can then make constant improvements to the app, without having to submit new code for approval and without the user having to download the app for each minuscule update. That is, the app will improve in real time, with bug fixes coming before the majority of users even notice. You’ll never have to worry about being behind a version, since you automatically have the latest version.
Best of all, it’s easier than ever to make browser-based apps look exactly like ones you download from the App Store. Both iOS and Android have a simple feature that allows you to create an icon for a web page on your homescreen, much like a bookmark. So developers have the advantage of still having a dedicated app, while users retain their familiar interface.
Again, the biggest obstacle here is the ingrained system, whereby Apple and Google make money when people download apps through their stores. Developers would obviously prefer to live outside that ecosystem, where they get to keep a much larger portion of each sale. Offering browser-based apps can be a way to that end. It will take plenty of work, as discoverability will remain an enormous issue. But if they can find a way around that, I expect we’ll see developers move towards this model. It’s too beneficial to almost everyone in the process (everyone except Apple and Google, that is).