Mobile App Development

Mobile App Development

Buyer's Guide

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Introduction Types of App Development Operating Systems Mobile App Functions Hiring Tips

Introduction to Mobile App Development

Mobile applications are one of the most popular means of engagement, promotion and sales for a wide variety of businesses. In the United States alone, more than 70% of the population owns a smartphone, according to data provided by The Nielsen Company. These devices provide access to email, social media, weather, sports, and commerce worth an estimated $75 billion in 2015 that's expected to be worth nearly $150 billion in 2019. This has made mobile engagement an essential component to the marketing mix for many brands.

But mobile solutions actually take form in two different options:

  • Mobile Websites
  • Mobile Applications
App on Multiple Devices

Mobile websites

Similar to any other site on the web, a mobile website is a series of interconnected browser-based HTML pages accessed through a Wi-Fi or mobile web connection and 3G or 4G networks.

The primary difference between a mobile site and its standard counterpart is size: a mobile site is maximized for smaller handheld screens and touchscreen usability. In addition to the regular features of a standard site, a mobile version of your website will also provide enhanced features such as click-to-call and location-based mapping.

Mobile applications

Unlike a mobile website that's available through a browser, a mobile app is a small software package that gets downloaded onto a mobile user's device. Though some apps are created for a variety of mobile operating systems , many are designed to be used within a single environment.

Commonly referred to simply as "apps," mobile applications offer the same basic functions as a website. They collate data and information via the web and deliver it to the user's smartphone. But they differ from a full website in that they typically only provide one type of information or service. For this reason, many are designed uniquely to offer ecommerce, news, games, restaurants, weather, or a single social media channel.

Mobile app vs. mobile website

While your end goals for consumer engagement often serve as the determining factor, choosing between a mobile app and website comes down to the specificity of the process. Mobile websites are best for providing a diverse selection of content to a wide audience.

In contrast, an app is best for tailoring your content or messaging to a more defined niche. Examples include:

  • Games: Consistently among the most popular downloads across all platforms, games are an easy way to engage with an audience.
  • Customization: When users routinely use your application to craft content of their own, such as Evernote, Google Keep, and Microsoft OneNote, an app is far more efficient than a website, allowing people to engage without web connectivity.
  • Reporting: Project management software and similar processes that offer real-time reporting and insight on your business processes are far more complete when offered though an app that's capable of complex calculations and graphic representations of the data.
  • Limited or no connectivity: Apps allow for work and productivity offline, refreshing content and updating a user's contributions when a web connection is reestablished.

It's worth noting that many mobile app developers recommend both a mobile website in conjunction with a mobile app. This practice reportedly enables you to provide the widest range of mobile content to your audience. Within this mix, a mobile website is often viewed as the first logical step, given that most users are already familiar with browser-based content and use a website as the first step in evaluating a product or service.

Using this guide

This Buyer's Guide covers the technical and creative decisions that go into mobile app development. As you read through, pay particular attention to:

  • The two different types of development, and which is best for you in terms of cost and features.
  • How the mobile operating system can impact usability, and which ones are most popular.
  • Whether an SaaS solution or mobile app developer is better for you, and how to choose the best among each.

Types of App Development

Generally speaking, there are two different ways to develop a mobile app: an all-in-one software solution or a professional developer. With either option, you should expect to receive access to an extensive selection of business tools and components. These services enable you to tailor the app to your unique line of business and provide insight related to the level of engagement the app is responsible for.

Both of these development methods also offer some form of post-launch support and maintenance, essential for managing the continuous improvements required for platforms, operating systems, and future releases.

But that is often where the similarities end. There is a huge difference in both the cost and amount of work that goes into each option. Consider the following comparisons.

Mobile app development software

Mobile app development software is among the many services made widely available and more affordable through the web. Known commonly as "software as a service," or SaaS for short, leading platforms enable you to design and build a professional app for iOS and Android. Though some services may provide development for the Windows Phone and Blackberry operating systems, these devices are used by less than 4% of the global market. So your options will be few and far between.

When comparing software, simplicity is the key. Look for those that offer drag-and-drop interfaces that allow you to quickly combine different elements and features such as text, photos, and video. Integration with social media is another critical feature. Most providers enable you to automatically link your app with Facebook, Twitter, and a variety of online stores.

App Types

Though somewhat limited in terms of unique branding and high-end graphics, as well as testing options and application support, most mobile app development software allows you to select from an assortment of navigation menus, colors, fonts, and icons. This solution is ideal for small to medium-sized projects such as the creation of a simple app for content delivery or promotion. And though testing can be limited, many offer real-time previews to ensure the design works as you intend.

  • What you'll pay: Similar to most other SaaS providers, access to the mobile app development platform is typically provided on a monthly basis. Quality plans start between $16 and $35 per month on the low end, and can go as high as $180 to $670 per month for premium plans that allow the building of data-supported and enterprise apps. Other plans may provide services on a project-to-project basis, with fees averaging between $500 and $1,300.

Mobile app development services

Your other option is professional development. This is often the route many businesses take as most do not possess the necessary programming knowledge or resources required to build an app in-house. At the same time, they also require branded design elements within the app - a level of customization that is difficult to achieve with the necessary level of quality through a SaaS solution.

If a mobile app software solution touts itself as easy-to-use, a professional designer is effortless in comparison. Many leading services offer a free consultation during which they allow you to detail your business goals and requirements for app usability. Professional services assist with everything from creating the initial concept and establishing the best design to taking the finished product to market by submitting it for approval to all applicable app stores.

It's worth noting that, in some cases, mobile app developers may be willing to create a framework for your app, including screen mockups and a complete set of design documents, for a fraction of the cost of the whole project. If you have the requisite in-house talent to create the code from this set of blueprints, this option can enable you to take advantage of the creative and design expertise of a developer without the costs associated with development and implementation. However, this phase can still cost between $5,000 and $10,000 depending on the type of app you're interested in.

  • What you'll pay: These upfront costs are only a drop in the bucket, as the time and effort professional design services will save you is reflected in the total cost of the project. Many providers break down their services by a range of different elements that include discovery and wire framing, screen designs, native development, backend programming, quality assurance, and deployment. At minimum, you can expect to pay $25,000 to $39,000 for a small project (basic apps only), $49,000 to $70,000 for a medium-sized project (database-supported apps), and $110,000 to $153,000 for large-scale projects (including enterprise apps and branded games).

Operating Systems

Apps are similar to most other software solutions in that they are limited by the operating system (OS) within which they run. There are currently four different types of operating systems. Each is structured a little differently, providing everything from high-level restrictions to complete freedom in the configuration of the smartphones and related hardware on which they run.

The four most popular OS platforms are:

  • Android
  • iOS
  • Windows Phone
  • BlackBerry

It's worth noting that the top two, Android and iOS, account for more than 96% of the market share, according to recent data.


The most popular smartphone OS in the world, the Android platform reportedly offers a dynamic combination of price, features, and performance, easily besting iOS, its closest competitor. Developed by Google, Android actually has open-source software at its core. Its most recent version, Lollipop 5.1, is coded in Java, a programming language built to simplify distribution via the web. Within this environment, Google has introduced improvements to the OS that include dual SIM card compatibility as well as enhanced features geared toward security and device protection.

The real benefit to mobile app developers is that the open-sourced Android platform offers the ability to custom-tailor practically any aspect of smartphone performance. Examples include functional tweaks made to lists, screens, security, notifications, ROM, and browser preferences.

For this reason, Android is found on a wide range of devices from leading manufacturers, including Samsung, LG, and Motorola, and offered on products through every major phone carrier in the United States. In fact, recent estimates place Android well above its competitors, installed on more than one billion devices throughout the world - a figure that reportedly exceeds all other vendors in this list combined.

This broad level of adoption has led to another high mark for Android-based apps: the Google app store, Google Play, is currently offering more than 1.6 million unique mobile apps. This number exceeds the offerings of the Apple App Store by about 100,000.


iOS from Apple is Android's closest competitor. Designed uniquely for Apple products, including the iPhone and iPad, the current version is iOS 9. Featuring enhanced performance functionality through improved multitasking, the iOS platform also reportedly maximizes screen display. This is especially useful on an iPad as it enables the user to operate two different apps via split-screen. Apple also points to an increase in overall intelligence resulting from iOS 9, with Siri providing a wider range of search options as well as faster results.

A favorite for its ease of usability, iOS is coded in Objective-C and one of the most secure mobile operating systems on the market. It prohibits many of the high-level customizations to smartphone hardware that Android is known for. For this reason, some mobile developers lean toward Android when advanced customization is required.

These limitations have not slowed the mobile app market for Apple through. Second only to Google Play, the Apple App Store offers more than 1.5 million unique mobile apps ranging from business and education to travel and games.

Windows Phone

Experiencing one of the slowest rates of growth among mobile operating systems, Windows phone only had a 4.2% year-over-year increase in 2014. In contrast, its top two competitors, Android and iOS, experienced growth rates of 32% and 25.6% respectively. By many accounts, industry analysts view the Windows 10 mobile operating system (the latest release) as a final attempt to establish Microsoft in the market. Others see it as the harbinger of the company's inevitable exit from mobile hardware.

The operating system itself is written in Visual C#/C++ and installed on proprietary devices. The main benefit of the software is the compatibility it provides with the Microsoft Office Suite and popular Microsoft programs including Word, PowerPoint, and Outlook. It's worth noting however that mobile apps for these same Microsoft platforms are available for Android devices, though they are limited in their functionality in comparison to the full version of the software.

As of July 2015, there were about 340,000 mobile apps available through the Windows Phone Store.


Once a dominant force in the mobile market, BlackBerry and its propriety closed-source OS have since gone the way of the VHS tape, currently holding only 0.4% of the market share, according to recent estimates. Understandably, mobile app development has slowed considerably for this platform, with only 130,000 apps available via BlackBerry World in July 2015.

Mobile App Functions

Unlike a mobile website that's designed to provide a range of different products and services, mobile apps specialize in a single function. But depending on the level of intricacy and business integration you require, the overall cost and lead time for development tends to fluctuate widely.

Among the most popular functions, you'll find:

  • Ecommerce
  • Stores
  • News
  • Games
  • Clothing/Fashion
  • Bars/clubs
  • Food/Drink
  • Hair/Beauty
  • Restaurant
  • Fitness
  • Medical/ Health


Ecommerce apps create a simplified portal to a brand's products and services. Popular for their ability to eliminate much of the hassle associated with brick and mortar shopping, and even some of the more involved retail websites, ecommerce apps provide highly streamlined navigation, product search, and item listings. These server-side optimizations are built in to help further improve the shopping experience by minimizing the amount of content delivered, thereby improving hardware speed and usability.

An excellent example is Fandango's mobile app for iPhone. Including movie listings as well as reviews for shows playing in the local area, users can purchase movie tickets directly through the app and simply present their smartphone at the ticket-taking booth.

  • Software or service? An ecommerce app typically requires access to databases and a more complex application programming interface (API), so it's best left to a professional service. This will result in an increase to the overall cost of the project between 170% and 390% in relation to basic development fees.
  • Development time: Between 140 and 250 hours depending on the complexity and OS.


Similar to an ecommerce app, popular stores and name brands have created a wide range of different mobile apps to engage with consumers. Sometimes used to facilitate the sale of goods and services, and other times simply used for promotion, the most popular functionalities include GPS locators that help users find the closest location. Many also provide push notices that advertise sales and discounts.

Starbucks is a good example. Their mobile app (currently boasting over 1 million installs on Android), enables users to order their drinks in advance, pay for their order, and check on the nutritional information associated with their food and beverages.

  • Software or service? Again, due to database requirements and the need for business integration, store mobile apps are best designed by a professional service. This will increase the overall cost of the project between 170% and 390% in relation to basic development fees.
  • Development time: Between 210 and 250 hours depending on the complexity and OS.


News apps provide a wide range of personally-customizable content that includes text, video, and audio. Most apps simplify content delivery by providing a timeline that includes easy-to-read headlines with the option to click-through for more information. Popular for allowing the user to quickly skim through topics of interest, the app can be tailored through a range of filters, including topic and geographic region.

The BBC's news app offers versions for both smartphone and tablet, maximizing the screen size of each device. News items take the shape of a large square button, with 9 to 12 headlines displayed on a single screen, and also include a photo in the background to further help the user discern interest.

  • Software or service? Often one of the more basic apps available, the push-notification style of a news app can easily be designed through reliable software. The same tech can be applied to blogs.
  • Development time: Between 70 and 170 hours depending on the complexity and OS.


Another one of the more basic apps on the market, games are also consistently one of the best-selling paid apps for both Android and iOS. Providing a simple form of entertainment that relies on touchscreen controls (think Angry Birds), mobile app games can also provide a source of revenue in some cases and even be used as a promotional tool for brand engagement.

Successful examples include the Audi A4 Driving Challenge and The Karate Kid, both of which were reportedly as entertaining as they were unique, resulting in millions of downloads while advertising cars and big budget movies respectively.

  • Software or service? Despite their often simplistic appearance, game apps are technically complex to animate and produce, especially when using branded graphics. For this reason, a professional service is just about the only way to achieve a quality result. This will increase the overall cost of the project up to 390% in relation to basic development fees.
  • Development time: Between 400 and 550 hours depending on the complexity and OS.


Apps designed for clothing and fashion often elevate the experience by tapping into a network of professional stylists who offer expert advice and ideas based on event, season, or personal taste. Many popular clothing apps enable the user to shop for a single type of garment as well as an entire outfit.

PS Dept is a mobile app that includes all of these features and also enables users to purchase the items they're interested in directly through the app.

  • Software or service? Depending on complexity, a clothing or fashion app could be created through a comprehensive app-building platform or a professional service. When offering items for purchase through the app, it's probably best to leave the development to a professional service to ensure it meets all standards for security and database integration. When doing so, expect the overall cost of the project to increase between 170% and 390% in relation to basic development fees.
  • Development time: Between 140 and 300 hours depending on the complexity and OS.


Another one of the more popular downloads, many bar apps incorporate a GPS locator. This enables users to find nearby bars and clubs then alert a select group of people (or the general public) to their location while tracking responses and a list of attendees.

Howl is one such example. It's based on the Foursquare API and allows users to check into a venue then notify those listed in their phone contacts. The simplicity of this particular app is one of its core strengths - navigation and responses often require only a single tap.

  • Software or service? Relying on web connectivity as well as a map or database for providing directions, a serviceable version of this type of app may be achieved through premium standalone development software.
  • Development time: Between 70 and 250 hours depending on the complexity and OS.


Similar to a news app, mobile apps for food and drink push a variety of recipes from restaurants, social media, and traditional programming brands. Users can flip through thousands of recipes with a single fingertip, filtered by the date they were posted or via key search terms. Many results also include a photo of the item to further simplify navigation.

In The Kitchen from Food Network is one such app. When tapping through on a recipe, users will also find tutorial videos that provide step-by-step cooking instruction. Search functions can also be refined by ingredient and seasonal focus.

  • Software or service? The newsfeed push-notification style of a food app can be designed through most reliable SaaS software suites.
  • Development time: Between 70 and 170 hours depending on the complexity and OS.


Beauty apps offer a similar level of consultation to clothing apps. Professional makeup artists provide a range of tips on hair, nails, and makeup. In addition to the advice and ideas, many service providers use these apps to market their services that often include house calls.

The Glam App is a perfect example. A full range of beauty treatments are available and can be booked with local beauticians and hair stylists. Though the "at-home" service aspect of the app is only available in New York, Los Angeles, Orange County, Dallas, and Las Vegas, the app remains popular for its ability to offer beauty products and services to a range of different budgets.

  • Software or service? Beauty apps can be designed through a comprehensive app-building platform or a professional service. However, when offering services and using the app for booking, it's probably best to leave the development to a professional. When doing so, expect project costs to increase between 170% and 390% in relation to basic development fees.
  • Development time: Between 140 and 300 hours depending on the complexity and OS.


Another version of the bar app, a food and drink mobile app will often add the ability to pre-order items or order takeaway through a few simple taps. Restaurant apps include full menus for restaurants throughout the country as well as photos of each dish. Listings can be browsed by particular dish or local area with GPS enabled.

The app from EAT24 provides these capabilities and also allows the user to store their payment information on their mobile device to simplify ordering and checkout on future purchases.

  • Software or service? Restaurant apps are similar to ecommerce in that they require complex databases and APIs. Best left to a professional service, you can expect project costs to increase between 170% and 390% in relation to basic development fees.
  • Development time: Between 210 and 350 hours depending on the complexity and OS.


Fitness apps offer tips on exercise and general welfare through push notification. Many feature individual exercises as well as complete workouts (with video tutorials) and enable the user to track and log their time or reps to monitor improvement in relation to fitness goals.

Skimble's Workout Trainer is one such app. Users can select from a wide range of built-in workouts or browse the app's library to custom-tailor an exercise routine based on their focus. This app also features a sharing capability, allowing users to post their routines for review by others.

  • Software or service? Often one of the more basic apps available, the push-notification style of a fitness app can be designed through mobile app development software.
  • Development time: Between 70 and 170 hours depending on the complexity and OS.

Medical/ Health

A niche offering, medical apps are growing in prominence as the medical community moves more and more of its services online. Free in many instances, medical apps provide detailed descriptions of conditions, drugs, and common side effects. While this type of app is usually geared toward the medical community, basic versions offer tips on CPR and general first aid.

The First Aid app by the Red Cross provides step-by-step instructions that walk the user through common situations. In addition, it offers safety tips related to a wide range of natural disasters and pre-loads content on the phone in advance. This guarantees all content will be available in an emergency, even without web connectivity or power.

  • Software or service? Simple by every definition, this type of app can easily be designed through mobile app development software.
  • Development time: Between 70 and 170 hours depending on the complexity and OS.

Hiring Tips

Whether used as a source of revenue or promotion, the best mobile apps are often the result of a reliable developer. Simplifying both the development and submission process, mobile app developers can help you get the most out of your investment while ensuring that you realize your end goals. But with so many different software suites available, and a variety of source code easily found on the Internet, those who offer services as an "app developer" may or may not possess the levels of experience and professionalism you're looking for.

When comparing mobile app developers, pay attention to the following criteria:

  • Platform experience
  • Development track record / client portfolio
  • Contract
  • Submission process

Platform experience

You'll find that many of the most popular apps are dually available on both of the top operating systems, iOS and Android. But some app developers may specialize in one OS or the other. When comparing providers, ask what types of devices they themselves regularly use and give preference to those that own and rely on the type of equipment you'll be developing for. The reason is largely based in usability and, in particular, the provider's level of experience with frontend and backend mobile app development.

Frontend development is what the user experiences. This is often one of the most critical skills a developer can possess as it determines the level of simplicity involved with using the app. Look for developers who have experience in HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript. A solid understanding of these web-centric programming languages guarantees everything from the correct display of information to the appearance, presentation, and user interface (UI) associated with your content.

Behind the scenes, backend mobile app development is the nuts and bolts that make everything work. Backend code is responsible for functions like calculation, business/domain logic, reporting, database interactions, and other issues of app performance. To ensure the most successful development, an app developer should possess experience in programming languages that include Ruby, Python, and SQL. These backend skills serve as the framework for most successful mobile apps and are currently used within Twitter, Dropbox, and Hulu.

Not all apps require the full range of development experience however. Basic apps that push weather, news, games, and other forms of entertainment or promotion may be designed rather quickly for use on a single platform – a process known as native app development.

Native vs. hybrid mobile app development

The skill sets of a mobile app developer often take shape in two different forms:

  • Native app development: Relies on the native programming language specific to the device the app is designed for.
  • Hybrid app development: Uses programming language designed for the web, such as HTML5, CSS and JavaScript, then plugs it into a native environment that's responsible for packaging it into an application for the mobile device.

A developer capable of offering hybrid app development can be a preferred choice as this combination of programming languages enables you to build an app only once and submit it to all of the major platforms. This often results in a shorter development timeframe and lower costs overall by saving you (and the developer) the efforts involved in developing for each native programming language.

Development track record / client portfolio

Similar to hiring any other service provider, you'll want to check references. When hiring a mobile app developer, look for past clients and work completed similar to your current needs. Speak to references in person, if possible, and ask:

  • How happy were you with the technical knowledge this developer possessed?
  • Was this developer able to accommodate all of your requirements for the app, including special user interface customizations made to the device (if applicable)?
  • How quick were they to respond to feedback and requests?
  • Did they deliver within the guaranteed timeframe?
  • Was the app accepted immediately or initially rejected by the app store?
  • If it was rejected, what was the reason? And how long did it take to debug the issues?
  • Did this provider come in on-budget?

In addition to personal references, developers should be able to provide a list of applications they were responsible for producing. If they were not entirely responsible, their contribution should have at least been in large part. These portfolios often contain hyperlinks to each of the apps, allowing you to review both the specific focus of their development as well as the end results. Download a few of the most popular apps, as well as a few of the least popular, to see how their work performs.


Most professional app developers require a service contract to perform work. Those that don't are probably not worth considering. It's worth noting that a contract with an international provider is almost impossible to enforce if things go awry. But their willingness to sign one is nevertheless an indicator of professionalism and commitment.

Sometimes known simply as an agreement, it's important to review your mobile app development contract carefully. In particular, pay attention to the inclusion of and language related to:

  • Work phases: Often breaking the stages of the project into milestones, this section lists the specific due dates for each phase of development.
  • Payment: Usually structured under either a "time and materials" or "fixed-price" agreement, the former pays for the actual time involved in development (which can lead to cost overages) and the latter which works off of a flat fee (typically guaranteeing budgetary compliance).
  • Specs: The technological blueprint of your app, here you should find the specifications you require. This section is an ideal way to avoid miscommunication, ensuring you get the desired end result. The more detail included here, the better. Though functional specifications are a common method of describing an app's functionality (using standard language), providers that offer a prototype are often favored as they allow you as the buyer to see the basic concepts in motion and make adjustments before moving forward.
  • Copyright ownership: Mobile apps are a form of intellectual property. In most cases, the developer automatically owns the copyright to mobile app software (unless directly employed by the client). If ownership of the intellectual property rights is important to you (and it should be!), make sure the contact includes a clause that relinquishes ownership over to you at the completion of the project. A common stipulation of this clause is that all invoices must be paid in full.
  • Background technology ownership: Similar to intellectual property, the backend code responsible for the app's performance is harder to get the rights to as many developers want to retain rights to the source code involved in their work. The reason for this is that it prevents the client from duplicating the source code to make alternate versions of the mobile app without paying the developer.
  • Warranty: Mobile app warranties guarantee the app will work as the developer has promised. Typically ranging from 90 days to one year, the best warranties offer free support if the app fails in some way.

Submission process

App Store

Before the app can be sold, it must be approved by each app store it is submitted to. The process often involves a number of steps and can be lengthy, typically requiring an account with each outlet and some type of developer program agreement. Agreements are one way to combat the theft of source code, ensuring accountability by assigning a signature to every piece of code involved in the app.

Typically possessing both the account and the experience necessary to expedite approval, most professional mobile app developers are more than willing to submit the finished code to an app store on your behalf as part of their service.

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