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DIY apps: The democratization of the app world

Apps are now easier to make thanks to widely available online tools, allowing small businesses to pick up on the trend. Next up: personal apps for yourself and your family.

Apps don't have to be games like Angry Birds or Draw Something. Parishioners can download an app made specifically for the Central Baptist Church in St. Louis, Mo. Central Baptist Church

Deborah Moncure and her app bring a new spin to the notion of a "Jesus Phone."

The introduction page to the Central Baptist Church app. Central Baptist Church

When Moncure, who works for the Central Baptist Church in St. Louis, Mo., was looking around last year for a way to get information out about the church's schedule and activities, she initially sought to upgrade her Web site. But upon realizing the number of parishioners--and younger potential parishioners--carrying smartphones, she opted to build an app instead.

But the fee for getting an app placed in the Apple App Store and Android was a little too high for a nonprofit. Moncure instead turned to a simple app-building service offered by Didmo, which the company boasts is easy enough for anyone to create their own app. It took Moncure about five hours to finish her app for the church.

She launched it in May. Out of a congregation of 1,800, she's gotten 418 downloads of the app, which works on Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, and resides as a Web-top app on the iPhone. (App Store approval is pending.) The app allows parishioners to schedule appointments with Rev. Dr. Robert Scott, read inspirational messages, and check on church activities.

"It's almost like having instant contact to our pastor on our phone," Moncure said. "Our pastor really appreciates the ability to engage directly with the congregation."

Call it a democratization of the app world. Over the past year, an increasing number of businesses and individuals have been taking advantage of a wide range of tools available on the Internet that remove the complicated barrier to building an app. Similar to how the likes of AOL and Geocities made building Web sites a hobby of the everyman, tools offered by companies such as Didmo, AppsBuilder, Conduit, and others are doing the same for the mobile world--and they're doing it at little to no cost. These tools help people like Moncure establish a foothold in the mobile world with little to no technical expertise.

"It's a natural progression," Didmo CEO Ted Iannuzzi said in an interview with CNET. "It happened in the Web, now it's happening in mobile."

It's already attracting small-business owners, who see mobile apps as a way to create a personal connection with their customers, create the sense that they're technologically hip, and like the idea that their logo or icon is sitting on a phone's home screen--making for an optimally placed ad. Carriers are already toying around with the idea of reselling these tools as part of a broader service to businesses. Next up: a similar service for individuals looking to make their own personal app.

A father could build a photo gallery app that can be shared with extended family members. Or instead of a Web site, a couple could distribute a smartphone app with directions and information about their wedding, which could then be updated with photos and comments from the ceremony. Schools could create apps for parents that could push alerts on school activities or parent-teacher conferences, as well as provide a list of emergency contacts. The beauty is, the school or couple could build these apps themselves with just a little investment in time.

Iannuzzi said he was in discussions with two carriers looking to distribute its platform, dubbed Magmito, to the small-business and consumer markets.

"We're seeing a lot of interest in apps," Iannuzzi said. "We wouldn't be courted by the big players if there wasn't interest."

The Coupon Girl goes mobile
Tracy Baltzell, also known as "The Coupon Girl," built her blog based on the principles of getting the best deals, whether that's free Kindle books or coupons from drugstores such as CVS and Walgreens. So it was only fitting that she would turn to Conduit, which was offering a platform to build apps at no charge.

A shot of The Coupon Girl's mobile app The Coupon Girl

"I just wanted to remain true to the concept of my blog, so I wanted to use this free version," Baltzell told CNET.

Baltzell used Conduit to build her own app, a process she said was "really easy," and launched it in August. Since then, she has gotten 6,000 downloads on the Android side alone.

"Most of my readers are Android users, and I'm an Android lover," she said.

She has a Web-top version on the iPhone, which is a permanent link on the home screen that looks like an app, but actually opens up an HTML 5 version of the app in the mobile browser. The app is available on other platforms, but they haven't been as popular.

"Initially, it was just something I wanted," Baltzell said of her decision to create an app. But since the launch, she said she's seen an increase in overall traffic, and that some of her current readers will more frequently visit her mobile app.

Tracy Baltzell, who blogs for The Coupon Girl Web site, used a free promotion to build a mobile app. The Coupon Girl

Baltzell doesn't currently run ads on the app--something Conduit offers under a revenue-sharing model--and prefers to keep the app clean. Her main source of revenue is from the ads listing on her online blog. With no revenue from the app, it's a good thing it's managed for free.

As CNET previously reported, Conduit had offered a limited promotion in which it would take apps and usher them through the app market approval process for customers for free. The process didn't guarantee a spot in Apple's App Store or Google Play. The company would provide support to ensure the app met the standards of the various marketplaces, although it was ultimately up to the customer to improve the quality of the app.

The offer, which only lasted a few days, is no longer available, Conduit said. Only 130 apps were published to Android in that span, while far fewer made it to the Apple App Store.

A billboard in your pocket
David Gottschalk, co-owner of the Web site Central Florida For Sale By Owner, got tired of getting asked if his company had an app. That's when he stumbled upon Conduit, which at the time was still offering its services for free.

The business, which connects buyers and sellers of real estate in Central Florida, was able to put its listings, featured homes, and contact information on a fairly basic app. The app, which took two days to build, is available on Apple's App Store and other app markets.

"It took less time to make the app than it did to get it reviewed and approved by Apple," Gottschalk said.

The app helps the company market itself against larger rivals with deeper pockets and more advertising resources. Having the app also aids the perception that the company is technologically savvy.

"For a Web-based company, if you don't have an app, they think you're not with it," he said. "It just gives the customer a much better impression of the company."

While Gottschalk said it was difficult to quantify the amount of traffic generated by having an app, he said it is invaluable for the company's ability to stay with consumers. Specifically, if a person downloads the Central Florida For Sale By Owner app, that logo will remain on the smartphone home screen.

"It's a constant billboard they're not likely to get rid of," Gottschalk said.

Indeed, the allure of having prominent placement is something that has driven companies large and small to the app world.

"It's a very strong marketing tool that you can use to communicate directly with customers," said Alessandro Perrone, chief financial officer of AppsBuilder.

Perrone said the tools would also work for individuals, who will eventually want to create their own apps, he said. For someone with a blog who wants to go mobile, the person can spend 10 minutes on AppsBuilder to create an app.

For the Central Baptist Church, having an app has meant an improved ability to appeal to younger members. For older parishioners, it's a way to ease them into technology. The app also gives the church and its leaders something to brag about.

"Rev. Scott is also a techie and appreciates being the forerunner of his group of peers," Moncure said. "He appreciates being the first to have a mobile app for his church."