New Thinking

Automation and the world of apps

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About a year after the first iPhone was released, Apple unveiled something novel: An “App Store” where users could download small software programs, or apps, designed especially for iPhones. It turns out users loved apps—by 2016, there were more than 2 million iPhone and iPad apps on the market.

Apps comprise a massive part of the software world, and one whose barrier to entry for development has dropped considerably in recent years. Automation and artificial intelligence are changing the app world, and aspiring creators now have access to a wide range of tools that allow anyone to create an app—with no coding involved whatsoever.

Artificial intelligence and apps
Aspiring app creators have access to several platforms which let them build apps online without coding and then deploy them to both the Apple App Store and the rival Google Play Store for Android.

Platforms like Appy Pie, BuildFire, and Swiftic all let users quickly create mobile software which give users a presence in app stores. Users create an account, build an app through a (usually web-based) platform, and then have completed apps they can then submit to Google and Apple for app store approval.

Crucially, these platforms all offer aspiring app creators lots of handholding. Swiftic, for example, guides users through industry-specific workflows for restaurants and ecommerce sites that allow creators to easily include product catalogs, online purchasing, loyalty programs for repeat visits, and customer coupons.

These cloud-based services basically use automation and artificial intelligence to take all the heavy lifting out of the app creation process. Because many app creators build apps that have similar function sets, it’s easy for the engineers behind app creation platforms to write code that automates their creation. And while an app created through an online platform might not be written by a human at a keyboard, they’re perfectly serviceable for creators like neighborhood pizzerias or niche ecommerce sites.

Building for automation
One of the most popular app creation platforms is Appy Pie, which as of July 2017 has been used to create more than 1.7 million mobile apps. When Appy Pie launched in 2013, it was one of the first app creation engines to hit the market. In exchange for a fee (which at press time ranges from US$15-$50 monthly per app), users can use the company’s engine to create their own apps. Users can pay extra for technical support; there’s also a free pricing tier which requires users’ apps to display prominent advertising.

Inside Appy Pie, one of the platform’s great advantages is that it streamlines the process of building an app. The platform uses a standard WSIWYG interface, and automates much of the process of tasks like building simple mobile games or adding social media integration into apps.

Abhinav “Abs” Girdhar, Appy Pie’s founder, says that the primary advantages of his company’s platform are cost effectiveness compared to hiring a developer, the ability to manage apps across operating systems and different devices, and the fact that no coding knowledge is required.

Girdhar is also upfront about the limitations of platforms like Appy Pie compared to conventional developers, noting that “One big compromise is the lack of flexibility when compared to an app created by a developer based on client requirements.”

Because Appy Pie and its competitors use automation to let users with no knowledge of coding and limited technical chops build mobile apps, there is a limitation to what users can build. Complicated productivity apps or smart home device interfaces, for instance, are a less sure bet than simple puzzle games or restaurant delivery apps.

There’s also, as Girdhar noted, a lack of flexibility in the apps themselves compared to conventionally coded software. However, many small app creators would eagerly trade a lack of flexibility to, say, being locked into working with a developer they might not be able to afford or being able to develop both Android and iOS apps for less than US$1000. And, of course, many developers also use these sorts of WSIWYG platforms to save time.

Not A Replacement For Developers, But A Complement
Girdhar’s admission cuts straight to an unavoidable truth: Many of the users creating apps on Appy Pie, Swiftic, or BuildFire wouldn’t be hiring developers in any case. Hiring developers to create iOS or Android apps is an expensive prospect that can quickly run beyond a creator’s estimated budget; creating an app by yourself just requires the spare hours to put the work together. For many entrepreneurs and creators with more spare time than spare money, that value proposition makes sense.

Swiftic, for instance, grew out of Como Sense, a company that makes customer management software for clients including Papa John’s, Burger King, and Quizno’s. While Swiftic can be used to create a wide range of Android and iOS apps, the primary use cases are aimed at small restaurant/coffee shop and retail operators: Features touted in promotional materials include loyalty apps, restaurant deliveries, and menus.

BuildFire, however, touts easy third-party integration of services such as Shopify, WooCommerce, Facebook, and OpenTable; their offerings are mainly aimed at medium-size and large-size clients looking to contain mobile development costs.

The New, Automated Web
All of these mobile app creators leverage automation and AI to one degree or another to help users quickly create Android and iOS apps. However, that creation isn’t taking place in a bubble.

WSIWYG app creators are outgrowths of commercial website development platforms which have been around for years. Services such as Squarespace and Wix have built their businesses around streamlining and radically simplifying the creation and maintenance of web pages; these services are a manifestation of the same impulse in the app economy.

For instance, Wix offers a platform called ADI that semi-automates the creation of websites; Squarespace also invests heavily behind the scenes in automating technology that takes much of the stylistic and technical guesswork out of building websites.

As phones become our primary devices for interacting with the internet, demand for apps by small businesses and capital-limited entrepreneurs will continue to skyrocket. And despite the best protests of the web design world, users still generally prefer mobile apps over responsive HTML5 websites.

Apps created through WSIWYG platforms, by and large, aren’t matches for software created by human developers. There is a genericness and a uniformity to many of the engine-created apps, their feature sets are hard to customize, and machine-created code doesn’t compare to software created by a human developer. But they fulfill the important task of making the app economy playing field just a bit more democratic, and users will continue to build apps on them for years to come.

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