When is an App not an App?
We’re currently designing and developing apps for the iPhone and iPad, and in doing so we’ve become much more attentive to what makes an app an app. It seems to be a point of confusion, judging by the number of clients who ask us to build them an app without fully knowing what an app even is.
There are mobile apps, intended for iPhones and Android devices.
There are tablet apps, intended for iPads and Android tablets, such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab and upcoming BlackBerry PlayBook.
And there are websites, which can be accessed on mobile and tablet devices — as well as personal computers and even some televisions.
Apps are created by developers, who tend to be computer programmers. Because the programming languages are so similar, mobile developers are becoming tablet developers. But the reality is that mobile and tablet development are very different.
Mobile apps are created for tiny screens that are always connected to the internet. That means the content can be placed on a server anywhere in the world and reliably accessed through wireless networks.
Tablet apps are created for larger screens that are not always connected to the internet, particularly those devices that rely on WiFi connections. That means the content may not always be accessible, and in order to guarantee a fulfilling experience it is necessary to include some if not all of the content inside the application, which results in larger file sizes. It is a media-rich experience that lends itself to a more sophisticated design aesthetic than a mobile app.
So why build an app when you could more easily build a website that works on more screens?
There are plenty of reasons.
• Because you want to sell it. • Because you want to make content accessible on a small screen, in the case of mobile apps. • Because you want to leverage device capabilities: a camera, accelerometer, compass, GPS, iTunes library, in-app purchasing. • Because you want to deliver content with reliability and immediacy, regardless of whether there is an internet connection. • Because you want to create a unique experience that is designed for maximum impact on a particular device.
Otherwise, it makes sense to build a website.
Not an app.
Apps typically do things. It is helpful to try to define an app’s purpose in a sentence, as in “this app helps people find used cars” or “this app helps people maintain shopping lists” or “this app turns photos into cartoons.”
Apple has specific requirements for apps. Otherwise the company will not approve them for inclusion in its App Store. In particular, according to the App Store Review Guidelines on Apple’s Developer site:
• 2.12 Apps that are not very useful or do not provide any lasting entertainment value may be rejected • 2.13 Apps that are primarily marketing materials or advertisements will be rejected • 12.3 Apps that are simply web clippings, content aggregators, or a collection of links, may be rejected
Books and magazines are viewed differently than apps. Their purpose is to entertain or inform, or both. They come to life on tablets, in particular, with the inclusion of multimedia — music, video, slideshows.
This has become our sweet spot, creating multimedia experiences that present content more dynamically than traditional and online alternatives. We’re working on several projects that we hope to share in the months ahead. Meanwhile, we continue to do our best to educate our clients as to what makes an app an app.
And not an app.