As an iOS development specialist, one of the most common questions we get is “How much does an app cost?” Unfortunately this is a classic “How long is a piece of string?” question, but giving people that answer generally doesn’t result in any sales, so we’ve spelled out some of the cost considerations in this post.
While it involves a few different skill sets, there’s nothing particularly special about mobile software projects that make them cost significantly more or less than any other custom software. However, the costs of custom software development aren’t well understood outside of the industry, and particularly now that people see high-quality mobile apps retailing for a couple of dollars on the App Store, everyone’s inherent value compass tends to vastly underestimate how much it takes to actually build them.
What follows is the general guidance we give to prospective clients.
‘Basic’ app – $5-$15k
An entry-level app will start from around $5,000. This might include:
- Calculator or small utility apps
- Store locator/brand extension apps
- Simple reference apps
These will generally be self-contained (no cloud service), and use mostly standard UI components with some custom graphics. Professional, high-quality graphic design will cost more, but is generally worth it for apps in this category.
You may be able to build them more cheaply by going through offshore developers, although you should expect to devote more of your time to managing their output. There are also companies that stamp out templated store locator apps for a few hundred dollars, but in our experience the resulting apps are very poor quality and, if anything, end up damaging your brand.
An informative behind-the-scenes look at building an app in this category is Repeat Timer Pro — the offshore development costs ended up around US$4.5k (not including design or subsequent marketing costs).
‘Complex’ app – $20-$80k
A complex app is one that incorporates any of the following:
- Dynamic updating of in-app content via a back-end service
- A cloud database to synchronise or share information between devices or users, and/or support for an ‘offline mode’
- Extensive integration with third party services (eg Google Docs, Facebook, weather services, financial data etc)
- Custom user controls or complex dynamic graphics & animation
- In-app purchases, subscriptions or push notifications
- Support for both iPad & iPhone (universal app)
Most business apps would fall into this category. There’s a lot of variation in the cost, but the biggest factor in most app quotes we see is its size: if you have 30 screen mockups in your brief, it’s not going to be cheap to build. Typically we recommend stripping the functionality down to its absolute bare minimum; the app will be less expensive, delivered sooner, and be much easier to use.
Top-Shelf app – $100-$200k+
An app entering an existing market (eg a Twitter client, RSS reader, or a vintage filter photo sharing app) will have to be very high quality in order to compete. This generally requires extensive UI design, graphics work, and lengthy rounds of usability testing. Expect to go through several iterations of development, testing & rework before you begin to approach the required level of polish.
Other apps in this price range would be ones with complex custom cloud services behind them (eg Evernote, Instapaper, Flipboard). In this case you need to build both a full featured cloud application including database/file storage, web service interface, and back office administration tools, as well as the iPhone/iPad app.
The most commonly cited example of app development costs in this category would be this StackOverflow answer by one of the developers of Twitteriffic: he estimated approximately US$250k to build the iPad version of their twitter client.
To sell your own app through the App Store, you’ll need to enrol in the developer program at US$99/year. When you’re running the numbers, don’t forget that Apple will take 30% of the sale price of apps & in-app purchases (for Australian sales, Apple also deduct the GST).
You’ll also need to take into account:
- Hosting costs, if you’re running a cloud service. These can range from free up to thousands of dollars a month, depending on how many users you have & how the service is being used.
- Marketing costs — customers need to find your app, and you can’t rely on the App Store to do this for you. The most common approach is to design & publish an app website and use cost-per-click advertising, but blogging, RSS sponsorship, offline promotion and social media activity all help spread the word.
- User support — you may need to provide email or forum support for your app (depending on what it does) — if so, you’ll need to implement a support/helpdesk system, and you’ll probably want to hire or outsource support functions as your userbase grows.
As is typical with custom development, you really need to speak to a development company to get a more accurate estimate of how much your app will cost, but hopefully the information presented here is helpful.