Who says it’s all bad news in the business world? These days, small businesses actually have a lot to be thankful for. No longer must they rely solely on e-mail and social media campaigns, while watching bigger (and more financially endowed) companies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on mobile apps that give them more comprehensive, intimate, and immediate contact with their customers.Now, with options like MobiFlex, even small businesses can afford to develop mobile apps that allow them to communicate and interact more effectively with their target audiences. Sure, print and electronic media have traditionally been an adequate way for small businesses to reach their customers. But apps literally put small businesses and brands into the hands of their customers, who can check for product information, prices, new services, special sales, and more with the simple touch of a smartphone screen. Small businesses can finally look and feel like the big boys they’re competing with.

What kind of business can benefit from a mobile app? You name it. From an auto repair shop that can push service reminders to its clients, to a courier service that can update delivery schedules in real time, to a contractor who can check the availability of a part while at a customer’s home, the value of and possibilities for small-business apps are endless.

And mobile apps don’t just allow businesses to communicate more efficiently with their customers. Apps also offer a vehicle for a company’s own employees to manage their tasks and time more productively. Have a technician in the field? Your app could map out his service calls and update their sequence throughout the day, putting a stop to endless rounds of phone calls and text messages. Have sales people on the road? Your app could keep your teams up to date on inventory, pricing, and incentives.

So what would stop every small business and its brother from developing an app? Until recently, price. Historically, the cost of producing a mobile app has been prohibitive for all but the biggest companies, and once in production, most apps became black holes into which increasing amounts of cash had to be dumped. But new technology like MobiFlex isn’t just low-cost; it’s a predictable-cost: for between $10 and $199 per month, small businesses can create and customize their own native mobile apps that effectively level the business playing field.

Mobile applications might be ubiquitous these days, but that doesn’t mean they’re all the same. In fact, there are two distinct categories of apps — web and native — and their respective functions and capabilities are quite different.

Let’s look today at native apps. No, they’re not applications that were born and bred in your home country. Native apps run directly on your device — be it iPhone, Android phone, iPad, or Android tablet — and give you the ability to use the resources native to it, including GPS, camera, calendar, and contacts.

“Big deal,” you might be thinking. “What’s so special about an app that can use my phone’s GPS and camera?”

In fact, native apps are special, and their value — especially to small-business owners — shouldn’t be underestimated. For one thing, native apps offer true geolocation-based marketing capabilities. If you’re a restaurant or store owner, a native app allows you to know exactly where your users are; if they’re nearby, you can instantly push a coupon out to them. Say you’re the creator of a new kids’ toy; with the help of a native app, you can locate your users and show them a list of places near them where they can buy your products and add-on accessories.

A native app also gives you the ability to use your device’s camera to take pictures, which can then be integrated into the application’s other functions. Insurance claims agents can use the camera to instantly upload accident photos for their reports, while real estate brokers can add up-to-the-minute property photos to their listings.

Sounds pretty useful, right? So what’s the catch? Well, traditionally, the development of custom native applications has required significant technical skills — think in-depth knowledge of complicated computer languages — not to mention lots of time and money. But MobiFlex has changed the rules of the native app game. With the MobiFlex App Studio™, users can create these applications faster, for less money, and without any special technical skills. As a result, the native app market has now been opened to a world of small businesses that in the past would not have had the skills, resources, or budget to access it.

We’ll soon post the lowdown on the other major category of mobile applications: web apps. Stay tuned.

The idea of building your own mobile applications is fairly new, and while we have been living it day in and day out for years, we realize that to the uninitiated, it sounds like a daunting undertaking. But the fact of the matter is, given the right plan and tools, anyone can build their own app.

Here are few hints to get you started. If you can follow some of these simple guidelines, you will be well on your way to creating great mobile apps!

Have a Plan

A major key to building your own mobile application is to have a basic plan. Adjustments can always be made during the development process, but you should have an idea of the basic goals of the application. The key elements to the plan are the who, what, where, why, and how of the application.

  • Who: Will this be an application for your own business? Maybe for your own private use? Will other groups find it useful and would you want to share it with them? Do you plan on charging others for use?
  • What: What functionality will the application have? Will you have to enter data? If so, what data? Will it pull data from across the web? If so, from where? Will the app be temporary, for a specific purpose or event, or will it have on-going everyday use?
  • Where: Will you publish it publicly on an application store, or will you just make it available to a select few? Which operating system will you use? Will it be a native application (operating directly with the end device camera or GPS) or a web-based application?
  • Why: Perhaps most importantly, what value will the app have for improving your business? Will it help you better engage your best customers for more sales? Will it build your brand? Will it help your travelling employees be more productive?
  • How: How will the application get the information it needs to complete the tasks? Will you need geo-location information? Will you need to access a centralized database? Will you need specific date from an Internet source? Will you need to use the device camera?

Once you have a basic profile of your new app, what next?

The Right Tool for the Right Job

Your success in building your new mobile application depends heavily on the tools with which you work. We truly believe in the MobiFlex platform and feel we have developed the essential tool for self-service mobile application building. However, in the interest of objectivity, let’s look at the qualities we thought were crucial to application building as we built the MobiFlex platform.

  • Visual, graphics-based interface: Software coding is hard and wrought with possible pitfalls for non-engineers. A graphical, drag and drop interface is a much easier way to initiate, organize and activate functionality. As computer users, most of us are familiar with dragging and dropping icons, while few of us know how to build those icons (or the related functionality) using code.
  • Flexibility: If you plan on developing one specific application in one specific environment, you may be able to get away with a platform that only lets you work one way. But take it from us, this stuff can be addictive. Once you make one application, we are pretty sure you will want to do another, with more functionality, of course. With that in mind, look for a development platform that will allow for flexibility in functions, flexibility in operating environments and flexibility in distribution options. The more possibilities, the more your apps will be able to do.
  • Testing: an often overlooked function but you should be able to test your new apps for free. Let’s face it, the first version is rarely perfect, and it shouldn’t cost money to go back and add features your users identify or to fix bugs.

We will be discussing many of these topics in greater detail in the weeks and months ahead, as well as including feedback and lessons learned from folks who have built their own apps. So stay tuned, and keep rethinking your mobile apps.

Like most folks, we here at MobiFlex believe mobile devices, in all their different forms and languages, hold a certain power that, when effectively tapped, can help businesses work and communicate more efficiently and provide a far more effective forum for engagement with end customers.

We do not believe, however, that the mobile device’s power should rest solely in the hands of specialized application developers knowledgeable in various elements of source code.

Everyone – and every business – should be able to build their own mobile apps, and we are here to help.

If you have ever stared down at that device in your hand and said, “This is pretty good, but I really wish my phone could do THIS,” than this is the place for you. The fact is, with a little work and a little help, your phone probably can do that, and you don’t need a degree in computer science to get it done. We have developed an interface-based platform that can help almost anyone build their own mobile apps without coding and at a minimal cost. Check it out and we think you will be surprised by what’s possible.

If you’d like a second opinion, read John Brandon’s recent column in Inc. Magazine titled “Can You Make Your Own App?

But the power to create your own business and personal apps also comes with a lot of questions, and that is the true reason behind this blog. How do you make the most from your new apps? How and where to publish? Native or web-based? How does one market and make money with your new app? These are the kinds of questions we will be addressing over the coming months, not to mention the more detailed technical questions that will inevitably come up.

If you’ve decided to build your own mobile apps, you’re not alone. You are part of a growing community. To that, we say “Welcome” and hope you will bookmark the Rethink Mobile Apps blog to enjoy our ongoing commentary and education on mobile app creation.