New Ways to Create iPhone Apps on the Cheap

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Does your kid's lemonade stand have its own iPhone app yet? It might soon.

To the 70,000 apps already available, Apple's App Store is adding thousands every week. Until now, though, building a professional-looking app had been complex and costly — many app developers charge upwards of $125 per hour or $5,000 a week, and apps created from scratch often take at least several weeks to develop, at a total cost of $10,000 to $20,000, not including monthly hosting fees.

That's about to change with this week's debut of new services from a San Antonio–based start-up called SwebApps and updated tools from California-based Mobile Roadie. The new offerings enable anyone to go online and have an app ready in an hour by personalizing, customizing and adapting sophisticated templates. Just as early Web-page-creation tools ranging from Dreamweaver to GeoCities made it possible for anyone to create their own website, SwebApps and Mobile Roadie aim to democratize the creation of apps.

"In 1995, if you had a website, you were cutting-edge," says Mobile Roadie CEO Michael Schneider. "By 2005, if you didn't have one, there was something wrong. Apps are now where sites were a decade ago."

SwebApps is aiming at small businesses, restaurants, creative professionals and anyone else who might want a mobile presence. The service costs $200 to $400, plus $25 per month for hosting. Mobile Roadie's service, which is expanding beyond its initial focus on bands, costs $400, plus $29 per month for hosting. By way of comparison, putting up a rudimentary website entails similar costs.

Artist Katie Pell is using SwebApps to create an app with directions to her gallery showings, news about projects she's working on and dozens of pictures of her drawings, paintings and sculptures. Angela Martinez, co-founder of San Antonio's outdoor Slab Cinema, says her app will update moviegoers about rainouts and schedule changes. Founding Farmers, a restaurant in Washington, D.C., has app buttons for food and wine menus, reservations, directions and feedback.

SwebApps' AppTracker lets you see how many people have downloaded your app and what buttons they use most. Founder Magaly Chocano says it will eventually enable clients to track where an app is most popular and how long people spend looking at various pages. SwebApps will also enable users to pay for products through the apps they create, so restaurants can take delivery orders and independent shop owners can sell their wares. Nonprofits can use SwebApps for free.

"In a few years, mobile apps will be to businesses what sites are today," says Chocano. "They'll serve as a product catalog, a shopping tool, a social-media resource, a way to gather client information, a media gallery — all on the go, at your customer's fingertips."

For now, SwebApps only works for iPhone apps, but Chocano says her six-person team plans to expand into apps for the BlackBerry, Palm and Android platforms. Mobile Roadie's six-person team has similar plans. Mobile Roadie and SwebApps aren't alone in the app-building arena. An online tool called AppBreeder is expected to launch in September, and Chocano expects additional competition.

But not all businesses see a need for their own iPhone app. Iris Rakovitzky, a manager at Hummus Place in New York City, says customers who can already access websites won't want an app for each restaurant or business they frequent. Rather than apps catering to existing customers, Rakovitzky says, the more useful apps may be those that aggregate and filter area restaurants or businesses, introducing them to new consumers who are nearby. And though Apple sold more than 5 million iPhones in the second quarter of 2009, 4 out of 5 Americans still don't have a smartphone. Apps aren't yet for everyone.

But time may change that. "If a local pizza guy can reach the 500 customers who love his pizza with daily specials and coupons, he's enhancing his fanatical following, even if it's small," says Schneider. "We're making it easy for that corner pizza guy to compete with the big boys."