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Are custom mobile apps worth the effort?

My company is considering building a custom mobile app for data accessibility instead of buying one pre-made from a vendor. What are the advantages and disadvantages of custom mobile apps?

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Developing mobile apps should be a lot easier than your traditional software. Vendors go out of their way to make the development platform easy to use and accessible to a whole plethora of developer types. So if you have the skills internally or can contract for them at a reasonable rate, you might be tempted to "roll your own" in order to get exactly what you need, when you need it.

Your top priority for an app may not be closely aligned with the development priority of your software vendor(s). But is it worth it? Maybe.

A lot depends on whether your mobile app is simply a standalone app or whether it needs to be integrated with other apps. Are you pulling data from your ERP or accounting applications, driving alerts and notifications, or are you using it for pure analysis? Are you feeding data back to those same systems? Expense accounting is a popular mobile app, but the mobile app doesn't cut your employees their expense checks or direct deposit funds. If you custom-build your own apps, you might get exactly what you want, but what happens when the back end system changes? There's no guarantee the integration will continue to work.

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Buy the app from the back-end solution provider and then it's the vendor's problem, not yours. Build it yourself and you take on that responsibility. Of course, if you buy the app from a 3rd party, you may or may not have the same problem. That will depend on the relationship -- if there is one -- between the two vendors.

If you build a mobile app yourself, you also maintain it yourself. That may mean testing and recoding when a back-end system changes, or it could mean you don't bother, get stuck on older releases and let your maintenance dollars go to waste.

If you contract for someone to build it for you, make sure you understand completely who takes on this responsibility. Will the custom developer continue to maintain the code? Probably, but at what price?

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This was first published in August 2013

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