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Smartphone apps in business.

According to the 2013 AT&T Small Business Technology Poll, 85 percent of small businesses use smartphones and 31 percent use mobile applications (apps) in their business operations. Almost half of the small businesses polled stated they could not survive--or that it would be a major challenge to survive--without these apps.

According to Jenny Fremlin, PhD, Media Psychologist at Alaska Litho Media Services, "Not only do most people have smartphones, we have come to depend on them like no other technology."

Generally, business apps are used to solve a problem for the business or their customers. According to the 2013 AT&T Small Business Technology Poll, the top three reasons respondents reported using apps for their business operations were to save time, increase productivity, and reduce costs. Of the small businesses using apps in their business operations, the majority (74 percent) use apps for GPS navigation and mapping. Location-based service apps account for 43 percent of small business app usage. Around 30 percent use apps for document management, social media marketing, and mobile payments in the field.

Business Apps

A wide range of apps save time, improve efficiency, and help businesses stay organized and current.

There are apps that add value by improving customer service, apps that make money by selling intellectual property, and apps that help companies do business. There are apps that allow users to manage employees, projects, and expenses. Sales reps may use apps to track and submit orders as well as take and mange payments. Mobile shift planning apps assist in the scheduling of staff, instantly notify staff of shifts or shift changes, allow staff to access shift schedules at any time and from any location, allow remote employees to clock in from anywhere, and even set automatic alerts to remind staff of their work schedules. There are also a substantial number of apps to help with finding and hiring employees, including recruiting and networking apps.

There are also a wide range of mobile apps to support field service or remote staff. These apps assist staff with managing schedules, tracking meetings and hours, accessing maps and driving directions, accessing company resources, sending regular status updates to supervisors, sending and receiving encrypted emails, taking and tracking payments by credit or debit card, developing invoices, and using word processing programs. Many of these apps also sync with desktop computers and/or use a cloud--virtual server space--to keep everything current. There are even apps designed to find apps.

The App Business

In some cases, it makes sense for a business to develop its own app. This may be to meet a specific need, brand a product, or sell intellectual property. If a business lacks staff with the technical skills to develop apps, there is help. Alaska Litho, an employee-owned print and media services company based in Juneau, is one of several businesses in Alaska that are now developing mobile apps. "Mobile is all about living your life with technology supporting it in the background," says Fremlin. "As a media developer, my passion is to help make applications that positively integrate technology with our everyday lives."

Fremlin says, "There are basic services out there that allow you to build your own static app that serves as a business card or copy of a website. But what we do is different, because we understand how and why people use mobile apps. With my media psychology background, we work with clients to develop the purpose and goals of the app, driving into what needs it serves and how they are best met with a mobile app."

Alaska Litho has been operating in the state of Alaska for over sixty-five years. Adapting to new technology is part of staying current in today's business world. Fremlin says, "We've been working mainly in education and travel, but we have some research and productivity projects coming up as well.

Businesses are interested in everything from simple ways to access information, such as a convention program app to supplement the print version, to new ways of organizing and displaying important information in a calendar."

One of Alaska Lithos recent projects is Postcards From Alaska. "There were already things being done with mobile apps that directly impact our clients and services, so we decided to create an app that would meet two goals," Fremlin says. "First, connect us to a new audience: the 917,000 visitors who come through our town every summer. And second, show our new app development service to our current clients ... Our app Postcards From Alaska is a simple concept that lets you use a photo from your phone on a real postcard that is printed and mailed from Juneau. It provides a personalized and memorable way to stay in touch." More information can be found at

According to Fremlin, "There's a lot of excitement around mobile apps, and even some pressure to get one for your business whether you have an idea for an app or not ... The goal! see for business apps is to help your audience find what they need as fast as possible so that they can get offiine with that knowledge, resource, or plan."

App Development is a Busy Business

GeoNorth is another local company that specializes in app development for both public use and private companies. GeoNorth Project Manager Andy Clary says, "We tend to attract those interested in productivity apps, apps that improve efficiency or make a business process available to mobile users where it wasn't available before. The apps we write are often mobile versions of an existing desktop application."

For some business owners, developing an app unique to their company is an important business strategy. Businesses may develop apps to provide a service, offer special deals, connect with customers, provide updates, and so on. Research suggests the business-savvy are not only using apps to improve operations and build their business, but many are developing their own apps for their staff or to sell as a product. But while some businesses use apps to generate a direct financial return, some use apps as tools to provide better customer service or increase customer loyalty. "Many [businesses] are using apps to promote their brand and engage customers through additional channels," says Clary.

Board Meeting Manager is one of the apps developed by GeoNorth. "This app allows businesses to conduct paperless meetings, create agendas, and archive and share documents and files related to board meetings," says Clary. "All meeting content is synced to iPads safely and securely so each board member is sure to have the latest version of a document. There is also a reference library for commonly used documents. A board administrator is able to create and manage meetings and agendas all from a website that pushes content out to iPads."

Before developing an app, Clary has some advice for businesses. "I would encourage anyone interested in having an app built to spend time formulating a solid plan for the app," says Clary. "They should have a clear understanding of what the purpose of the app is, what the app should be able to do, how it should function, and how it should look ... Equally as critical to the concept and vision, if the app is intended to be a commercial endeavor for the client, they should spend just as much, if not more time, developing a marketing strategy for getting the word out about their app. Without a strategy, the app will get lost in the app store[s] and never gain the traction it needs to be financially successful."

The Electronic Wave of Now

The use of mobile apps is growing dramatically. Online retail performance data from IBM's Digital Analytics Benchmark survey found that in 2012, mobile traffic grew by more than 67 percent. On Black Friday 2012, 24 percent of consumers used a mobile device to visit a retailer's site and on Cyber Monday, purchases from mobile devices accounted for 13 percent of online purchases.

According to the Pew Research Center's Pew Internet Project, 56 percent of American adults have a smartphone. With such widespread smartphone ownership, it is no wonder that there has been a dramatic upsurge in the development of smartphone apps.

"We are moving away from desktop and laptop computers," Fremlin says. "Mobile devices reach more people, lower the cost of access, and simplify the learning curve. This will impact all businesses. 2013 was a turning point. For the first time we saw more people using mobile devices to access the Internet than desktop and laptop computers combined. And although this was predicted, it happened even earlier than expected."

Eliza Evans is an Alaskan author.
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Author:Evans, Eliza
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Geographic Code:1U9AK
Date:Feb 1, 2014
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