The WordPress-ification of mobile apps has begun.
At the DEMO conference in Santa Clara, Calif., last week, an organization from nearby Foster City called iBuildApp unveiled a platform whereby everyday people could develop something for almost any kind of smartphone, including iPhones or Android devices, even if they don't know the first thing about programming. Not unlike Adobe's recently released PhoneGap Build or Titanium from Appcelerator, iBuildApp will operate as a cloud-based service whereby users simply upload content, pick and choose from pre-developed design templates, add in social media channels and presto! iBuildApp will host the apps and facilitate updates as required.
The whole approach reminded me of the early days of the Web--not long before the first dot-com boom (and subsequent bust)--when people hired Web designers to create the sites they needed for personal and, more often, business use. Remember those people? They charged an arm and a leg, and the market for their services created a huge demand for training in Web design using various languages. As e-commerce evolved, things got a bit trickier. However, this system changed as it gradually became apparent that most sites would follow a similar approach to navigation. Most of these sites focused on publishing content, and a great deal could be standardized. This was where WordPress came in. What started as a slew of personal blogs gave way to more and more organizations adopting WordPress as their back-end content management system. There are so many templates or "themes" available now that it's not all that difficult to create a fully-functional site in less than an hour, all hosted in the cloud for a pretty cheap fee.
This is what will inevitably happen to more of the mobile app world as well. iBuildApp will not be the place where enterprise apps are developed today, but for simple photo-based sharing apps, contest apps and the like, there's a lot of potential in what firms like iBuildApp are offering. Like WordPress, the only tradeoff is that you have to agree to let iBuildApp run whatever ads they want in your app. This is where the platform providers will really make their money in the long run, which could mean steep competition for developers who hope to do the same with their own in-app advertising.
This doesn't mean it's game over for developers, of course. It simply underscores a growing need to demonstrate considerable innovation and value in what kind of apps end up in consumer's hands. If it's not more dynamic, more intuitive, more engaging or more shareable than what the average person could set up in something like iBuildApp, why bother? In fact, it would be worth looking at offerings like iBuildApp at the idea stage, and going through a self-assessment of sorts to see what really differentiates an app from a mixture of basic content and template designs. As empowering as iBuildApp and its inevitable imitators may be to consumers who want to take a DIY approach, they could commoditize a lot of what are seen as premium app offerings today. It is best if developers react early and enthusiastically to this challenge. Just because the barrier to entry for mobile apps is getting lower doesn't mean the best in the business can't aim higher.--Shane