iPhone Apps. To build or not to build.

A client recently asked my advice on whether or not I felt it made sense for them to take one of their applications and build it out as an iPhone application. Here are some things to chew on while trying to decide if an iPhone application makes sense for your business.

How often will the application be used?

Frequency of use is a key distinction in determining whether or not investment in an iPhone app makes sense. Do you expect your users to use the application at least once a month? If the answer is no then you should think about building a web based application instead. Think about the apps that most people have on their phones. Weather, Flickster, Facebook, their banking application, etc. Most users will use the powerful Safari browser on their iPhone to access applications they use infrequently.

How will users find your application?

The App Store can give businesses a powerful new mechanism for reaching a new client based through the App Store. It is really a new way to reach people. If you think that users would be likely to install your application after finding it on the App Store then building an iPhone application may be right for you. Just keep in mind that it can take months for Apple to approve your application and it could get rejected. The App Store is not like the internet free for all that you are used to. Google recently spent a lot of time and effort to build and application that was simply rejected by Apple. Build some time into your project schedule for this approval process and set expectations with business owners.

Who will build and maintain your application?

In order to build and iPhone application you need a Mac, an understanding of the iPhone APIs, and willingness to program in Objective C. If you are going to use an agency for development and maintenance then you are in good shape. If you plan to leverage your IT departments resources, make sure they can handle it. Most developers have never worked with Objective C or the iPhone APIs. Also remember that developers need to be certified to even build iPhone applications. There is a nominal expense associated with the developer programs.

Would a web application suffice?

Let’s face it, iPhone apps are sexy and generate a lot of excitement. But there are actually ways to build sexy applications for the iPhone without actually building a full fledged iPhone app an dealing with all of the restrictions around it. It is possible to theme your web application so that it looks and feels like a native iPhone application. You can get all of the cool effects like swipe and flip without ever leaving the browser. This approach will enable you to leverage existing development resources and deploy the application to your existing hosting environment using HTML and the server of your choice. You can even get an icon on the iPhone home screen that launches a full screen version of your app. I expect to see more and more web applications for the iPhone and fewer native applications as the Safari browser catches on. Safari has some powerful new features via HTML 5 that even enable you to do offline storage directly on the phone. The browser is quickly becoming the application platform of choice.