I often forget that, when I'm in "developer mode", I speak a language foreign to many people. For that reason, this is will be my first article discussing concepts and/or jargon that come up frequently during or about projects. First, you may find it helpful to know that when developers talk about Web sites, Web applications, and mobile apps, we are referring to three different, albeit related, types of projects. Carry on if you'd like to find out more.
Web site, Web application, and mobile app projects are each a part of a mobile-era marketing plan and can be (often, are) interconnected in some way, but are very distinct and require different resources, budgets, and expertise. They range from basic brochure sites to custom Web-based applications to mobile apps and platforms that facilitate communication between one, two, or all three of these types of projects.
"Out of the Box" Solutions
These require special mention because many times they are used for any one of the three project types we are discussing. "Out of the box" (or "Boxed") solutions are the equivalent to software you purchase at your local Best Buy to run on your laptop. For Web sites, you might know them as "plugins" (if you're familiar with WordPress) or "extensions" (if Joomla is more your thing).
Regardless of your chosen platform, boxed solutions often provide complex capabilities (such as an online storefront/ecommerce) without the need to pay someone to develop the logic specifically for you by licensing software that is already available. This tends to be an inexpensive alternative to Web applications, but limits the functionality to how that solution was created and what features already exist for it. It might not let you put some function exactly where you want it to appear (or where your customers have requested), such as on a specific product page, or it might not work with your existing merchant processing service (credit cards), but it saves the expense of having this done for you.
These are all important points to discuss when determining the project's scope. If an out-of-the-box solution can't be found that suits your needs, custom development is your only option.
We'll start with the least complex of these projects. A Web site (or "website") is the equivalent of an online brochure, though you can add ecommerce and other, more complex interactions with your customers, a Web site is rarely more than an extended business card. These days, a Web site is displayed through a Web Application like Joomla or WordPress (called a Content Management System or CMS), but we aren't creating the application itself, only implementing it in order to display content based on customer interaction or allow customers to purchase their favorite hiking pack. Because they are so limited, Web sites tend to be the least expensive kind of project to undertake.
For a professionally designed, custom Web site, you should expect costs of $1,200 or more. It is possible to get them less expensive, but these will not be custom sites and will likely drop your content into a template that has been used many times on other Web sites.
Web applications are separate from Web sites, but are made available to the world in much the same way to work alongside your Web site (or are perhaps the backbone of your site and allows you to manage your content requiring only basic familiarity with Microsoft Word). Typically, Web applications are created to offer some kind of custom functionality, but more often these form the backbone of some internal system that needs to be available to both customers and staff. Web applications tend to be more expensive undertakings and are often considered product development since the application is a product in its own right, often providing some kind of subscription-based service (Dropbox, Gmail, and Outlook.com would all be considered Web Applications) or special feature.
It's important to note that commissioning a custom Web application is the equivalent of creating an entirely new product which is the intellectual property of the client. As a client, you own the application (generally covered under the "work-for-hire" implied contract, but an important fact you should get in writing) and the responsibility for maintenance, as well as addressing bugs, new features, and enhancements (terms all the subject of a future article), all falls on the company who wanted the software created to begin with. For that reason, the cost is often prohibitive to very small businesses. This can lead to "bootstrapping" using boxed solutions to achieve your goal until you arrive in a position to commission a custom application which can scale properly as your business grows and evolves.
The last type of project we'll cover is a mobile app. These are similar to Web applications, but instead run in an isolated environment on a mobile device, whether that's a smart phone or a tablet running Android or iOS. These tend to the most expensive undertaking for two reasons. First, there are many different devices and requires testing many unique scenarios to ensure the app works properly across as many devices as possible. Second, few apps can operate in complete isolation. In order to communicate between separate mobile devices or between the customer and the business, an app needs a component to accept communications from it. That component is a Web application that accepts and processes communications from the mobile app.
These are three of the most common types of projects that a custom design and development firm can assist with and its important to jump into the right project with the right developer. All three are linked to an effective mobile marketing strategy, but finding the right type of project to start with can seem daunting. It's often cost-prohibitive to do everything at once. Discuss your current situation with someone who understands the tools that are available and what each can offer so you can take a step in the right direction.