Why I cringe when I hear: We need an “app”

Another buzz I hear all the time is a need for a business to have an “app” – a cell phone (mobile) application to meet the needs of clients. I hear it often, especially in the payroll industry.  Then software vendors scurry — trying to throw something together as quickly as possible — and mostly just for show.

But the real question is: Why is a mobile application such a necessity? Is there any benefit to the client or is it more ego driven?

Personally, I cringe when I hear it — especially as a developer.  Below I’ll explain why and share a better alternative to an “app”.

An app means development headache

Disclaimer — I’ve never personally developed a native iPhone or Android app. On our team, Rob has and a close friend of mine Bert has as well so I’ve been able to draw from their experience. I thought for honesty sake, sharing this detail was important — and sure it may make you question some of my credibility but I’d rather be up-front and honest. Just remember I’m coming at this as both a business owner and developer.

Building an app is not trivial but that’s not the reason why I think it’s a bad idea. Each platform, iOS (iPhone), Android, Blackberry and Windows Mobile, has it’s own unique development language and distribution marketplace. So you can’t easily write a single set of code to support each. Yeah, yeah – I know there are some solutions out there which say a single codebase can support all, but from what I’ve heard that really limits your functionality.

Since each platform requires different code — meaning a developer needs to be versed in each.  Believe me there aren’t too many developers that are – so I’d need to know the Objective-C programming language for the iPhone, Java for Android and Blackberry, and .Net for Windows Mobile. Wow — three different languages to support the four major “app” platforms — can you see the headache starting to build?

Plus for distribution of my app, each platform has their own marketplace and “approval” process.  This is another headache since I need to familiarize myself with each, learn about their timelines and abide by their individual guidelines.  Apple’s process is the most stringent requiring a few weeks since they personally inspect and approve every app in the iTunes store.

Why not just pick one platform and outsource that development to a consultant?

I know a company that recently did this — which I wholeheartedly felt was a very bad decision.  If you know me, you know I’m honest to a fault.  So I shared my thoughts with them on why this was a bad idea. It pretty much fell on deaf ears, but oh well, at least I felt better sharing my feelings.

So why is this a BAD decision?

  1. By picking only a single platform, you’re alienating MANY users.  For example many people think “just build an iPhone app”.  They say it probably because it sounds “sexy” and Apple’s iOS was the first platform to support apps. But there’s a big FLAW following this strategy.  In the last comScore report, Apple has only 38% of the US market. What about Android users who represent over 53% of the market? You see what I’m getting at – you’re leaving over 60% of the market with nothing?
  2. Hiring a consultant is a BAD idea when your internal development staff does not have prior experience with “app” development. Sure the consultant may get a first version to market for you, but what happens after that?  What happens when bugs crop up? Will that consultant be willing to respond asap to develop and deploy the fix for you? Probably not which now leaves you in worse position — an “app” in the market but with no development resources to maintain it when things go wrong. And remember, there are always feature requests with software — so how can you respond?  You don’t have expertise on staff to react.

So what should be done then to meet the needs of mobile access?

The simple answer: a Mobile Website.

Why? All mobile phones have browser capabilities and as a developer I can develop in my language of choice. Sure there’s a slight learning curve since I need to learn how to develop and optimize for a smaller screen/device, but I don’t need to learn three different languages to support all my users. Plus “distributing” it is easy since it’s just a URL anyone could go to. When I need to push updates, I STILL develop in my language of choice and then publish the changes to a web server — it’s as simple as that. This enables me to fix bugs and respond to feature requests much quicker.

In the Philly area, I love when I see company’s touting their mobile website. For example, Thomas Jefferson Hospital — a large hospital in downtown Philly — runs commercials now about their mobile website. It makes me smile each time I see it — knowing I would’ve made the same recommendation if they had asked for my opinion (not that they ever would have).

Are “apps” really needed in the payroll industry?

I can’t tell you how many times I hear from people in the payroll industry that they need an “app”. But an app to do what? Do you really think someone is going to use their cell phone to key and submit payroll?  Could you really imagine someone using their phone to enter hours and salary information in a paygrid format? I think not…

Take me for instance — I’m a business owner who is technically savvy. I would NEVER think about entering our payroll information via an “app”. It would be too much of a hassle and as a business grows managing payroll complexity on a small screen would be a nightmare.

I often hear that a payroll company thinks they need it to compete with the ADP’s and PayChex’s of the world — but why? Is having an “app” really going to get that many new clients? Sure it’s sexy to say – but will it win the client? Or do you win because of your exceptional service and reporting capabilities at a fair price point? I bet more often than not, it’s the latter.

I’m not 100% against apps

I probably sound like an app-basher, but I’m honestly not. I think every organization needs to look at it logically, assess their true client needs and internal skillset.  If there’s something you can do to help a client do something faster or quicker and an “app” is a fit for it, then do it — but first see if a mobile website may be a better fit!

I’ve had a number of people ask me about building a FileGuardian app — for their internal payroll company usage and for their clients to use. Have I thought about it? Yep I have — but then I come back to the value it brings.  That’s where I struggle since I don’t see the value.

What we have done is make file downloads through FileGuardian mobile friendly — I think this is a BIG need in the payroll industry. Heck, we even released PUSH to bring text messaging (or email) of payroll information to the forefront. But do you see a common theme — there isn’t an “app”. We implore technologies that every device can utilize and we can maintain with a single codebase and we’re mobile friendly. I think the “distribution” of payroll information is the key via mobile devices is the next wave of reporting in payroll.  Let me know what you think — do you agree or not?

So next time you think you need an app — think about what I’ve shared. If it brings value — then do it but first explore the alternatives. See if a mobile website or other platform could accomplish your needs and support 100% of your clients. If not, then go down the “app” route.  If you want to run a scenario by myself or Rob — we’d be glad to help and give you our thoughts.

Who knows — we may even do an “app” at some point. If we do, you know we’ve explored the alternatives but felt the app was the best fit for our clients.

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