"Our team is starting the arduous task of building a software product. How can I make sure that we finish this project and start generating revenue before the seed-money runs out?"
Barry, Owner, Senior Consultant
Barry has over 5 years of experience developing native mobile apps for clients, line-of-busniess mobile apps for fortune 500 companies, and original apps for the Apple App Store. Before that, he was building standalone SaaS applications that helped thousands of businesses serve their customers better.
When I sit down with clients who say they want to build a "mobile app", the very first thing I try to do is establish whether they really need a "mobile app" or not. A lot of times what clients need is a web app that behaves like a mobile app, but I'm going to gloss over that idea right now and just talk about when you SHOULD build a "mobile app", or a locally-installed app that executes and runs from the mobile device.
So, when SHOULD you build a mobile app?
A: When you need "powah"!
Web apps that behave a bit like native apps are like hoverboards. Yeah, they're futuristic and awesome and stuff... but they're pretty weak in certain cases...
Mobile apps, on the other hand, have some power... er, computing power.
They have power to pull off fancy animations and graphics. They can also render 3D, transform pictures, record video/audio, and stream all these large files over the internet quite reliably. Powah! Power from masses of distributed devices all doing the heavy lifting so your central server can take the afternoon off. Do you feel me? What about accelerometers that tell you how the device is oriented? Do you want to do some advanced things with gestures? Do you want more accurate GPS? Need any of that? If you don't need any of that. Perhaps you don't need a native app.
A: When your users need to know about something RIGHT NOW
Push notifications, some people want them or are generally fine with being randomly tormented with reminders. Go figure. If your users are tolerant of these and it helps drive business, I guess everyone wins.
A: When having your brand on your client's phone is priority #1
If your primary concern is that little app icon on your customers phone screen, then yes, you're probably wanting to build a mobile app. There are other, less obvious ways to accomplish this, but they are less well-known and kinda tricky to pull-off from an adoption standpoint.
A: When you want to leverage app discovery
If you want to try to use the App Store as a customer acquisition channel, then you definitely want a mobile app. Keep in mind there are very few success stories in this model, but I've personally seen thousands of leads come from even somewhat-mediocre mobile apps.
A: So you can say you did
Hey, I won't judge you. Lots of people have web pages and simple web apps (PHP + HTML), but vanishingly few can boast that they also have a mobile app. I've been part of deals where this was a primary concern. I don't blame them for wanting that. It does tend to convey technical savvyness to your customers and colleagues, warranted or not :).
A: When you really just want to
This seems patronizing, but I don't know how many meetings I sat in where clients were excited about building a mobile app and I talked them out of it in favor of a web app. During such meetings, everyone has a "Oh yeah, that makes sense" moment, the atmosphere of excitement in the room dies, and then they just end up doing nothing. Their lack of excitement turns directly into a lack of forward progress. Blargh! Listen, if you want a mobile app, you should get one. Just get one if that's what you want. It'll be fine. We'll make it work. However, my job is to try to advise you about the best path forward given what I know, so don't fault me for that! Trust me, I really want to build the thing you're excited about too. I want to make awesome stuff for you! We're both excited about the same kinds of things and if your consultant (me) tries too hard to steer you away from what you really want... just say "Nope, I want what I want". And, trust me, it'll be fine. Your consultant (me) is going to be so happy that you chose to build an app. Because its what we both really (secretly) want to do.
There you have it...
Some of this has been strong on the tongue-in-cheek side of explaining the ins-and-outs, but it also contains many seeds of truth. If you'd like to discuss further, please call us at: (316) 350-5541
 Web App - An application served from a web-server, to be rendered within a web browser (ex: PHP, Python, Rails, JSP, ASP.Net)
 Mobile App - An installed native app who's code runs primarily from the local, mobile OS
 Native App - An app written primarily in the host mobile OS languages/frameworks