Do-It-Yourself Mobile Apps for Small Business

Thursday Mar 31st 2011 by James Alan Miller
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The iSite browser-based platform lets anyone create mobile apps for smartphones and tablets that run on Apple's iOS or Google's Android operating systems. No technical experience required.

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The mobile market has grown so big and so fast that savvy small business owners realize participation in that market is no longer optional, but essential, to doing business. But developing mobile apps for Android-or Apple iOS-based smartphones and tablets takes technical skills and money that many small business owners don't have ready access to. What to do?

A good option is to check out GenWi's subscription-based iSites platform, a browser-based system that lets you easily create mobile applications with little or no development knowledge -- and for little cash up front.

Develop Your Own Mobile Apps

You can develop two basic types of mobile apps with the iSites platform: Web apps -- called instant apps in GenWi's parlance -- and native apps. Think of Web apps as mini-websites (they even have their own URLs) that have been formatted for smartphones. Consequently, a mobile device must be connected to the Internet  to access a Web app's content.

Add RSS feeds to iSite mobile apps; mobile tools
You can add up to 25 RSS feeds to your iSite mobile app.
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Native apps are the kind you download from mobile-application storefronts such as Apple's iTunes App Store (for the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch) or the Android Market for Google-based smartphones and tablets. These types of apps run directly on the mobile device and don't require an Internet connection to deliver full functionality.

Available only for the iPhone and iPod touch, iSites-developed Web apps are nearly indistinguishable from native apps in use and appearance -- as long as the mobile device is connected to the Internet. GenWi plans to extend Web apps to the iPad and to Android-based mobile devices in the near future. Currently, if you attempt to access an iSites-developed Web app from the browser of any unsupported mobile device, they get the same "share" message you'd get when doing so from a desktop.

One thing to keep in mind: the apps you develop in iSites aren't going to be the most sophisticated in the world. But that’s okay. They do a good job providing businesses with the mobile presence required in today’s mobile-focused world.

The Web apps, which sport an iPhone look-and-feel, are sharp and professional-looking enough to well-represent any small business that wants to reach out to and interact with customers who are on the move.

Choose the Right Plan for Each Mobile App

The mobile platform you reach (iOS or Android), and how you reach it (Web apps or native apps), depends on which iSites plan you choose for the mobile app you develop.

Once you sign up for an iSites account, you can develop as many mobile apps as you like. However, you must choose a monthly pricing and feature plan for each individual application. Should you create more than a couple of apps, particularly of the native variety -- and, perhaps, with iSites' full complement of ecommerce features enabled -- the service could get expensive quickly.

The iSites Basic plan runs a reasonable $25 per month. With it, you can develop a mobile app that’s both a Web app and a native app for Android devices.  You must submit your mobile app for inclusion in the Android Market to enable the latter, however, which requires signing up for a $25 developer account with Google. Additional Basic plan features include access to the iSites App Management and Ad Control systems.

A $49 per month Premium plan adds support for native iOS apps. You must submit to apps to Apple for inclusion in the App Store after registering as a developer for $99. Both Apple and Google take a 30-percent cut of any apps you sell through their storefronts.

Lastly, the $99 per month Pro plan adds in full-service technical support -- the other plans limit support to the iSites forums -- and help with App Store and Android Market submissions. This means GenWi will help get your native application up on the appropriate storefronts and, therefore, into the hands of end-users and customers.

Push notifications that let you quickly alert users of your mobile app on content updates and additions are included at this level as well.  The Pro plan also lets you integrate localized coupons into your app, which adds value and can be an additional source of income.

How to Create a Mobile App in iSites

The iSites interface sports a clear, tab-based wizard that walks you through the process of creating a mobile app.  After clicking Getting Started and registering, you pick the URL where people will access your application as a Web app. Then select a language (English or French), and give your mobile app a title, description and set of tags.

In our test case, we chose http://JamesAlanMiller.isites.us, JAMboToday and English. The system automatically tells you if the URL you select is too short or already taken.  Click on the above URL to download the app we created directly to your iPhone, send it to your mobile device from your desktop, or share it with others.

Next, iSite sends you to the Content tab. Here, you pick the RSS feeds (up to 25) from which your mobile app pulls its main content.  You associate every feed you add with a set of categories that you create, manage and alter throughout the development process. iSites lets you edit these feeds and categories any time, even after an app is published and, if it is native, even without resubmitting the application to the App Store or Android Market.

Design mobile apps; mobile tools
Use iSite's iPhone simulator to see how your mobile app will look and feel on an iPhone.
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Although iSites' RSS system is an easy and useful way that you can quickly load your mobile apps with content, we wish the system allowed us to more easily integrate static Web pages. For instance, there were some pages, such as a list of articles we’d written, that we could not get the iSites platform to accept. We ended up having to recreate them from scratch using the system’s Quick Post feature.

Think of Quick Post as basic blogging platform.  While Quick Post's interface isn’t all that sophisticated -- GenWi recommends that posts use as little formatting as possible -- it does provide a suitable method for quickly and easily adding text and audio/visual media posts independently of the RSS feeds.  We used it to create our application's Bio section and the aforementioned lists of selected recent and older articles to our app.

In addition to RSS feeds and Quick Posts, iSites offers a simple mechanism for integrating content streams directly from various blogging and media platforms. These include Blogger, Wordpress.com, Posterous and Twitter for blogs; Flickr, Webshots, Picasa, Smugmug, and Zooomr for photos; and YouTube for video.

 For our app, we added a feed from our Twitter account by selecting Twitter and entering our username (@JamesAlanMiller). Unlike all other content, which you associate with various categories, the Twitter feed you select ends up automatically appearing in the Social section of your finished app.

How to Design a Mobile App in iSite

Once you've compiled your app's initial content, it is time to move to the Design tab, which includes a nifty iPhone simulator to demonstrate how your finished work will look and feel on a mobile device. Click on any area of the simulator -- Home, Categories, Search, Social, and More -- to run your app through its paces as you develop it.  

We encountered one minor annoyance with the iPhone simulator: an inability to scroll all the way down when you've entered more than a few categories. GenWi explained that few of their customers, unlike us with our review, create apps with more than four or five categories. They've noted this issue for future enhancement, however.

You can also change the color of an app’s header font and background or upload a .PNG image to use instead, which is what we did.  Meanwhile, you organize your mobile app's content within the Design tab’s Category section.

This is where you decide which category people will see first and edit which feeds each category will draw content from. You can create and delete categories on the fly as well as assign small images (GenWi calls them favicons) to each category.

You can't reorder your categories once you've added them, unfortunately. We noticed another minor issue when viewing our Web app on an iPhone. When a category is more than a couple of words long, it rolls over onto the next item. Shortening the category names solves this problem, though.

Also, for most feeds -- except for those entered under Quick Post -- when you go to a specific article on a mobile device from a finished Web app, it provides the title, the first sentence or so, and then an option to read the rest in Safari Web browser. This isn’t a major issue, but it does push users away from your mobile app, which is where you want them to be. 

Publishing a Mobile App with iSites

Once you're happy with your app's design, it is time to move on to the Publish tab. This is where you select a pricing plan, and therefore the devices you want your mobile app to reach.

Design mobile apps; mobile tools
The finished mobile app can sport a professional – if not fancy -- look for your business.
(Click for larger image)
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After that step, iSite steers you to the Creatives tab where you add a short description of your mobile app, categorize it for the App Store and Android Market if you’ve decided to take it native, and input keywords for search purposes. There are also fields for entering a support URL and banner image for the mobile markets, as well as uploading icon and splash images for when the app is installed on mobile devices.

From there, click the Monetize tab to integrate Google's Admob mobile advertising platform into your app if you like. You must first sign up with AdMob and get a publisher ID for this to work. Should you choose to enable ads, you can stop them anytime.  

If you choose the Pro plan, the Monetize section is where you may add localized coupons to your app. Simply enter a business's name, address and phone number; pick a category and upload a 120 x 79-pixel image for each coupon you want displayed.

GenWi provides you with a number of ways to let folks know about your iSites app. For instance, you can easily distribute the link to your Web app via social media (Twitter and Facebook) and email.

Although we didn't take our app native, if you do, GenWi said it should take no more than 12 hours for it to appear on the Android Market, but it could take two weeks or more to make it onto the Apple App Store.

Bottom Line: Creating Mobile Apps with iSite

If you want a quick and relatively cheap way to create and distribute a mobile application without hiring a developer or taking a course in app development, iSites is a simple and easy-to-use alternative. It's a promising system that should become even better over time.

James Alan Miller is a veteran freelance writer and editor with 17 years experience writing about technology. His areas of expertise include small business, enterprise and consumer wireless, mobile and hardware.

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