How much does an iOS app cost?

A question that comes up each time someone is interested in building an app for iPhone or iPad is about its cost. This question becomes soon an issue with the customer due to the fact that somehow the world has come to believe that iPhone app are cheap. Well, they are surely cheap to buy, most can be even got for free, but they are definitely not cheap to develop.

The chasm between a customer’s expectations and the reality of developing an iOS app can be at times overcome by shrinking down on functionality the app should have. Actually, this kind of simplification is in my opinion highly necessary with any customer in any project, since it is really easy for a non-technical person to underestimate the cost of any development, even to misunderstand what kind of development is required (we all understand that developing a WordPress-based kind of site is a different matter altogether than developing a custom back-end/front-end system for doing data visualization). So, nothing new here: one needs help the customer to get to a feasible idea given the budget and time constraints he has. This is true for both mobile and non-mobile customers.

The trouble is that too often, after spending hours into talks and estimation, you get out with nothing in your hands because the customer thought he could pay 2k$ for an app that would cost at least 10k$. When it happens, it is also a bit frustrating on the personal level.

So, what can be said about the real cost of developing an app? How can a customer be lead out of misbelieving that developing an iOS app, given that most are available for free o 1$, must be cheap? I have always found useful this post from Stack Overflow: How much does it cost to develop an iPhone application? The value of the information this post provides lies with the fact that it gives a sketch of the cost of developing very well known iOS apps (like Twiterrific, or Angry Birds, and others), often by the very app developer itself.

More figures are available from this page from OSX Daily, which sets a simple app at about $3000-$8000 and a more advanced app at $50,000-$150,000. This article also provides figures about the cost you should pay if you want to hire an iOS developer in countries like Russia, Ukraine, India, etc.

One great analysis, with many figures based on the chosen mobile platform and a quite accurate classification of the different kinds of mobile apps you can have can be found in this post from Developer Life.

Lately, Kent Nguyen has contributed his own thoughts about the matter here.

In my experience, what I found useful to explain to customers is the following:

  1. developing an iOS app is by no means easier than developing an app from Mac OS; indeed, the language, compiler and SDK you use are practically the same;
  2. there is an appearance of simplicity, which comes from the fact that mobile apps are usually shrunk down in functionality: a good mobile app does one thing, but it does it well; this does not mean that developing that single piece of functionality is easy, it will still take the time it needs;
  3. usually, developing for a mobile device is actually more difficult than developing for a desktop OS; indeed, mobile devices have limitations in performance and, above all, memory that desktop computers have long forgotten; just think that a mean iOS app has got to do everything in just 8MB of useful memory;
  4. apart from memory and performance, a mobile app has got another big disadvantage compared to a traditional desktop app: ubiquity of data and synchronization;
  5. finally, it cannot be underestimated the complexity of UI and UX design, which is a big part of a mobile app success and it is by no means different on mobile or desktop platforms (although for mobile apps this requirement is a far stricter one).

All of the above considerations hold true beyond the fact that new frameworks or services might arise to improve this or that aspect of development. They attain at the very core nature of developing for mobile apps (especially in comparison with the desktop counterparts).

One final note that I find many times useful to explain to customers of a certain profile is that entering the mobile apps business is a decision that requires being aware of what it entails. It is tempting for many small companies os shops to get an iOS app done and sell it, just like it is for many independent developers trying their luck with the App Store. The App Store makes everything appear easy and frictionless, like if apps were candies . It is not so.

In fact, doing an app for the public to use is a different matter than building your own web site for advertising your product and getting in touch. Selling an app is an even more different matter. If customers can bear with minor annoyances in a web sites, they will not understand equally well a crashing app, sloppy updates, or sloppy support. An app is a living object requiring continuous care, in one dimension or another. If you stop caring it, it will die.

So, the final message is that deciding to get an iOS app done is not just about spending the amount of money, be it high or low, that it requires to be initially developed. It is entering specific business dimension.

Better be aware of it, you are not already.

P.S. The high cost of developing an iOS app brings up the issue of how much you could get by selling an app through the App Store. This post from technoodling has some words about it, but this is a different topic altogether.

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