Spokane Journal of Business

Web developers here go mobile

Experts advise research before investing in popular technology

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Web developers here go mobile
--Staff photo by Chey Scott
Zipline Interactive's Ryan Stemkoski says the company is developing some mobile apps and a lot of mobile websites.

As the number of smartphone users increases, several Spokane-area web-development firms are taking advantage of those trends by developing mobile applications for businesses both here and elsewhere.

Some Inland Northwest-based businesses also have employed the expertise of such firms to have mobile software applications designed for their own needs, or to provide their customers with an additional way to stay connected on the go.

Meanwhile, other computer-programming firms based here are capitalizing on the trending "app" market by creating their own mobile-based software and offering it for purchase by smartphone users.

Ryan Stemkoski, vice president of Zipline Communications Inc., which does business as Zipline Interactive and is located in west downtown at 154 S. Madison, says the web-design and development firm only recently began offering mobile-app development as one of its services.

Mobile apps - also referred to in the industry as native apps - are downloadable programs that are designed to run on a smartphone, such as the Apple iPhone and phones that run on the Google Android operating system. The software is installed directly onto the phone's hard drive and has the ability to access functions of the phone while the user is in the program, such as the phone's built-in camera or contact list, Stemkoski says.

He says that a similar option and feature to a mobile app is a mobile website. In the past couple of years, he adds, Zipline has created mobile websites for many of its clients.

"We have seen a huge demand for mobile websites and minimal demand for mobile apps here," Stemkoski says, but he adds that Zipline is seeing demand from clients located elsewhere for its mobile app development services.

"That (demand here) has been increasing, but a lot of people so far haven't been ready to make the leap," he says. "Growth in mobile use is huge right now, and there is a lot of opportunity for people to be the first in their industry to come up with a tool that sets them apart from competitors and that can be done on a mobile device."

The main difference between the two is that a mobile website is a simplified version of a website that originally was intended to be viewed on a computer screen and is accessed via the Internet, but can't be downloaded to the phone, Stemkoski says.

He adds that mobile websites are accessible via any kind of smartphone with an Internet connection, while a mobile app has to be programmed in the language of the phone's operating system for which it will run on. Thus, he says a mobile app can be costlier to create because if a client wishes it to be usable on any type of smartphone, it has to be separately written in each platform's code.

Stemkoski says the cost to have a native app developed could range between $5,000 for a very simple program and upwards of $50,000 for a complex application that's functional on multiple platforms.

Because of that expense-related concern, Margaret Croom says she launched a mobile website for her business in May 2010 before she considered investing in the development of a mobile app.

Croom is the owner of Nosey Parker LLC, a Liberty Lake-based business that operates a directory of locally-owned stores and services in the Inland Northwest that cater mostly to women.

"You have to be careful spending your money on a native app, because what if no one downloads it?" Croom says. "It's great to have a mobile (site) in the meantime so people don't have to spend money on it."

The Nosey Parker mobile site, at noseyparkerinw.com, includes maps of where stores are located, as well as contact information and short descriptions of each listed business. Stores are organized based on the area of town in which they're located, Croom says.

Aside from the mobile site, Nosey Parker has a local blog with much of the same information included in its mobile directory, and the business also sells a printed guidebook of shops here.

Croom says she eventually plans to add a mobile app so that users can choose if they want to download it for $1.99 from Apple's iTunes App Store or the Android Market app store, or continue using the free mobile site. She adds that the app version will include some additional features that the mobile site doesn't have.

Native or no

Croom says one of the benefits of having a native app designed is that users can access the program even when they're not connected to the Internet since the information is stored directly on their phone. For that reason, native applications also perform better than a mobile website, especially when it comes to loading pages and graphics, she says.

Stemkoski says that Zipline currently is working on a locally-based project to develop a mobile app for Ski the Northwest Rockies, a nonprofit organization based in Newman Lake that represents several Inland Northwest ski areas and local snow-sport retailers. He says the app is planned to include member ski resorts' events, real-time conditions, and other related information. It's expected to launch during the upcoming ski season, he says, and will be available for both the iPhone and Android platforms.

There are several advantages and disadvantages to both mobile apps and websites, Stemkoski says, and he advises a business that's looking to have one or the other developed to consider such factors before making what could be a sizable investment into a mobile app.

One thing a business that's considering having an app developed should ask itself, he says, is who's going to be using the app and what for.

"The critical thing is that it's performing a usable function," he adds.

Businesses that offer regularly-accessed information as a service, Stemkoski says, might benefit most from an investment into having a mobile app designed. An example of such a candidate, he says, could be a local library that wants to offer its catalog as a searchable database that would be accessible even without an Internet connection.

Aside from businesses here that are using apps as a marketing tool or a way to keep their customers engaged, the Spokane area also is host to a few ventures that are focusing solely on the development of mobile applications that are intended to make money.

One of those is Olive Tree Bible Software LLC, located at 1119 E. Westview on Spokane's North Side, which for 12 years has been developing applications that give users the ability to read the Bible or related Bible-study material on the go, says its President and CEO Drew Haninger.

Haninger says that when the company started out, it designed its Bible-study software to run on Palm Inc.'s handheld computer organizing devices. Since then, its focus has shifted to programming its software for use on smartphones, including the iPhone and Android phones, as well as Apple's iPad.

Haninger says Olive Tree now has 15 Bible-related apps that are sold in the iTunes App Store, including one free version. In all, he says the company has programmed more than 1,000 digital versions of books related to the Bible and the Christian religion that it's been licensed to resell in an electronic form, many of which are academic resources for scholars or professors.

In the last couple of years, he says, Olive Tree's number of full-time employees has doubled to 28, and it's seen its sales increase between 20 percent and 30 percent. He adds that the company also is outgrowing its current space and is considering a move to larger headquarters in the near future.

He credits this growth to the increasing use of smartphones, as well as the iPad, for which much of Olive Tree's software also is compatible.

"I think this area will always grow," Haninger says. "Almost everyone has a cellphone, and all of the newest phones you can put apps on."

Targeting iPad, games

Another local web-development firm, RocketGUI LLC, of Spokane Valley, has created an iPad-compatible application called HomePilot that it sells worldwide through vendors of commercial- and residential-security systems.

RocketGUI President Michael Balch says the six-year-old company's iPad app is available for free in Apple's App Store, but that it has to be configured specifically to work with the security controls of a building. He says a home-security company would have to program the software to communicate with the system before it would work, adding that along with that would be a one-time fee the user would pay to use the company's software.

The HomePilot application launched about a year ago, and Balch says that since then, RocketGUI's sales have increased each month. He says the company isn't working on any other app development projects at this time, and is focusing solely on the HomePilot program.

RocketGUI has three employees and is located at 11115 E. Montgomery, Balch says.

Spokane also is the home of app entrepreneur Jason Lust, owner of Stellar Online LLC, which does business as Stellar Games and is focused on the creation of mobile apps in the form of games.

Lust says he's always had a goal to create and sell games in a mobile form since the app market started taking off several years ago. He recently released Stellar Games' first app, a game called Petunk, which now is available for sale in the iPhone App Store for 99 cents.

Lust says the game originally was created by another computer programmer, Alex Schearer, who gave Lust permission to program the game to be compatible on the iPhone. The 25-level, putt putt-style game was launched in mid-August and so far has seen a handful of sales, Lust says.

"The App Store is a hard place to stumble on an app, unless you get other coverage or are featured by Apple, so I haven't had many downloads," he says.

He says that he continues to do contract-based programming work on the side so the business stays profitable, and currently is working on an app for an auto company that intends to use it internally for employee-training purposes.

While Petunk is the first game app that Lust has created under the Stellar Games name - he formerly was vice president and co-founder of another Spokane-based web-development venture, Gourami Group Inc. - he says he's been developing programs in Apple's iPhone operating code since 2008, some of which also made their way to the App Store.

He says that right now he's working on several other prototypes for game apps that he hopes to eventually release for sale.

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