May 27, 2010, 12:24 PM

App Roadmap

(Page 2 of 2)

When it came time to develop an app on its own, Wine.com could have selected market share leader BlackBerry, a platform used by many business people who constitute a likely target audience. But the retailer felt the more vivid graphics of the iPhone would produce a better shopping experience. “Also, apps were almost synonymous with iPhones,” Kennedy says.

Wine.com engaged Exygy to develop the app last fall, and Exygy was able to make use of the Symbian app as a starting point. Exygy used a tool called PhoneGap that enables developers to take the coding of one app and convert much of the work into another app.

Developers building an iPhone app with PhoneGap can use familiar HTML and JavaScript tools rather than Objective-C, an Apple-backed programming language. “Everyone knows JavaScript. No one knows Objective-C ,” Berke says. “It takes a long time to learn Objective-C.”

Geeky stuff
PhoneGap works on iPhone, Android, Palm, BlackBerry and Symbian operating systems and can save companies time and brainpower. “The real geeky, deep engineering stuff needs to be done only once,” Berke says.

But PhoneGap, an open source technology, is not a panacea. For a time last year, Apple was rejecting PhoneGap-developed apps as not meeting its rules for iPhone apps. The PhoneGap blog and app developers say the problem apparently has been resolved, with Berke reporting 24-hour approvals from Apple for some PhoneGap apps. Apple declined comment.

Some developers are critical, saying PhoneGap translates only the most basic app features, and Berke agrees that PhoneGap could do more. For instance, he’d like to see the tool evolve to include support for plug-ins and such popular features as Facebook connections. “The PhoneGap community is moving in those directions,” he says.

Other mobile technology vendors have developed their own methods for addressing the cross-platform hurdle. Among them is Digby, which has built BlackBerry, iPhone and Android apps for online retailer 1-800-Flowers.com Inc. The vendor has prefabricated platforms that serve as a framework for each device, enabling Digby to build apps in a device’s native code without the aid of a translator such as PhoneGap.

“We try to account for the idiosyncrasies of each platform,” says Dave Sikora, Digby’s CEO. For instance, BlackBerry devices have for years let users multitask—such as entering a new address while talking on the phone—while Apple just recently introduced that feature on its iPhones.

Money and time
Whichever path a retailer takes, it’s going to cost money. While Wine.com and 1-800-Flowers.com declined to say what their apps cost, Exygy’s Berke says most of the apps his company develops cost $25,000 to $50,000. Retailers who want low-end apps can expect to spend between $5,000 and $10,000, he adds.

Enhancing an existing app costs less. For instance, Wine.com’s plan to improve the purchasing feature of its app would take no more than two weeks and cost about $10,000, Berke says.

Early entrants into mobile commerce say they have learned to reduce the time required to develop apps after building the first one. For instance, 80% of the development work for 1-800-Flowers.com’s first app for the BlackBerry was applied to the e-retailer’s later apps for the iPhone and Android platforms. “We gained a notable time savings when creating additional apps,” says Kevin Ranford, director of web marketing. Digby developed the app for the retailer.

Paint company Benjamin Moore & Co. hopes to enjoy similar time-saving benefits. It took Benjamin Moore six months to develop its iPhone app, launched last June, which enables consumers to employ color wheels and photos taken with the phone’s camera to determine the right paint, and to locate Benjamin Moore retailers via ZIP code or the phone’s GPS feature, says Carl Minchew, Benjamin Moore’s director of color technology. More than 100,000 consumers have downloaded the app.

The company aims to reduce the development time as it prepares to develop an app for another smartphone, which Minchew would not name. “The design brief, story board and graphic design can be similar,” he says, “but the software code is quite different.”

Differing views
Some merchants, such as multi-channel retailer The Catholic Company, are not convinced apps are worth the time and trouble. The retailer this year launched a mobile site that was developed in-house and cost about $3,000, says Chris Cash, director of e-commerce. But he estimates a mobile app would cost $10,000 to $15,000, at least. “We have no plans for mobile apps, but we won’t rule it out,” Cash says.

By contrast, Moosejaw Mountain-eering, after developing three generations of mobile sites, has put money aside to develop its first app.

“It would be more of a brand engagement piece,” says vice president of marketing Eoin Comerford. Moosejaw customers often send in pictures of themselves wearing Moosejaw apparel in exotic locales, and one idea is to mesh that grassroots branding activity with a smartphone’s GPS and camera features. “Right now they have to take the pic, download and e-mail. The app would make this process much more seamless by integrating the phone’s camera with the GPS location.”

Now comes the big decision: Which device to focus on first? Comerford says that up to 5% of the traffic to Moosejaw’s site comes from iPhones. But he is unsure whether the iPhone will get the first app. “A year ago, the iPhone would be the answer,” he says. “But the other platforms are gaining ground.”

Indeed, mobile apps pose a range of tough questions for retailers. But where consumers go, retailers follow. And for millions of consumers, using mobile phone apps for work and play is becoming part of their daily routine.

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