Pros: A variety of industry-specific, small business themes; customizable plugins make your app look unique; high level of support
Cons: No Windows Phone app creation; e-commerce limited to Shopify
If you're new to the app-building game, BuildFire is a great place to start. The second you enter the BuildFire interface, folks are waiting to help you via a pop-up chat box to visually design and build your app.
With this template-based online tool, all programming is done automatically in the background. You can get started quickly by choosing a template and replacing the sample data with your own via a simple click and drag. As you work, a friendly help video pops up explaining how to add features to your app. BuildFire also contacts you by email to make sure you don't get stuck.
BuildFire is built on plugins, so there are plenty of opportunities to make your app look unique and to integrate and sync multimedia apps such as YouTube, Vimeo, your blog, podcasts and RSS feeds. It also lets you integrate such social media networks as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
The app supports web browsers from inside the app. While e-commerce capabilities are limited, you can set up a store with Shopify so customers can purchase items from your app, while a loyalty program keeps people in touch with your business. SmartPush technology lets you integrate social media and features for targeted groups, facilitating user engagement through posting, commenting, liking and configuring notifications.
The impact on IT is minimal. The app is created, managed and hosted in the cloud, with APIs available for sophisticated functionality. Once you have finished creating your app, you can view it on your iOS or Android phone.
Verdict: BuildFire is a fun, friendly, do-it-yourself app builder that anyone can use without knowing mobile programming languages, while being flexible enough for more advanced add-on technology.
Pros: Publishes across all platforms; powerful building-block system simplifies the creation process
Cons: Only the most expensive plan allows you to build an app for tablets or incorporate APIs.
AppMachine uses a familiar Lego-like building-block metaphor to break down barriers for novices creating their first app or an app from scratch. Plus, its built-in viewer lets you observe the proceedings live on your smartphone as you work.
There's plenty of variety with AppMachine's templates and skins in creating native apps for events, business, music, sports, media, restaurants and bars, clubs, nonprofits, tourism, and more. The site also coaches you on native app benefits, hinting at the types of information to include and offering specific examples.
AppMachine's deep and complete editor gives you access to every design element, such as images, fonts and colors. You can jump right into the creation process immediately, and you only pay when you're ready to publish.
The app's signature Building Blocks feature modules like Information, Photos and Video, and let you link your app to Facebook, Twitter or online stores. You can choose your navigation paths, colors, fonts, icons and other distinctive looks.
The company offers an app site where you can place promotional materials with links to Apple's App Store and Google Play so site users can easily find and download the app. You can use either AppMachine's built-in analytics dashboard or Google Analytics to monitor your app's progress and effectiveness.
AppMachine is especially convenient if you have to design across all mobile platforms, including Windows and BlackBerry. But unless you have the most expensive plan, you will not be able to design for tablets.
Verdict: AppMachine is a hugely creative app builder that gives you granular control over the design of your app via a friendly building-block metaphor.
Pros: Drag-and-drop simplicity; analytics provide solid reporting; good social networking integration
Cons: Creating a tablet app and API access require a more expensive account.
The second you choose a template from ShoutEm's various categories, you are propelled into the heart of the drag-and-drop app maker. You can adjust all menu items and icons with eight preset layouts and the ability to tweak every detail, including size, scroll orientation, font and color. You can insert your own photos and graphics so that your company's app looks totally unique.
ShoutEm has a heavy social networking component for local businesses in the form of fan walls, user profiles, status and photo updates, comments, and likes. Tools include advertising, analytics, push notifications, and automated publishing to iOS and Google Play.
You can add RSS feeds for many ShoutEm features, including News, Video and Photos. It's easy to log in and update content at any time. There is minimal IT involvement, as the company submits your app to the app stores, and maintains and updates the app maker interface from the server.
ShoutEm offers two loyalty features: a reward program where customers can earn points by sharing check-ins via social media and a special deals section for customizable deals. E-commerce opportunities are slim: ShoutEm offers a Shopify feature or a product catalog, which lets customers purchase items externally via a link to a web store. You will have to invest in a more expensive subscription for advanced features such as iPad app creation and API access and data sync.
Verdict: ShoutEm is a good choice if you are new to app makers, and it offers detailed and extensive social features for connecting with and retaining customers.
MORE: How to Become a Mobile App Developer
Pros: Variety of eye-catching themes and layouts; user-friendly interface; access to your source code; plugins and APIs allow broad customization
Cons: Standard plan is limited; additional app submission fee is required; the most advanced (and costly) plan is required to build a native tablet app
Upon creating a GoodBarber account, you are presented with a simple, inviting interface that lets you design your app, add content and test. First, you choose from among 50 premade themes and assorted layout, menu and text styles. These let you add logos and designate the exact type and style you want. You can also create your navigation layout from scratch, with the option to just enter code. Launch screen and app icon creation features are available after you finish building and submitting your app.
GoodBarber lets you add a wide range of content to your app, such as articles, photos and videos, custom pages, maps, calendars, and forms. In addition to custom fonts, you can use high-resolution stock photos from the Unsplash, a free stock photo library. You can display blog posts from WordPress, Blogger, Typepad or an RSS feed. You can also manually upload content through GoodBarber's CMS.
The app offers social networking, chat, advertising networks and push notifications, as well as integrating its own analytics, or Google Analytics with Full and Advanced plans. It even includes such advanced features as geofencing and iBeacons. Features like User Authentication, User Groups, Community, Chat and Loyalty Card, Club Card, and Couponing are available only in the Advanced plan.
One confusing bit is when GoodBarber first asks you to name and categorize your app. You can't use any special characters or spaces in the name, and we found the error messages confusing. A changelog lets you track all of your edits, while a full testing interface ensures that all elements are in place before you submit your app to a store. Once your app is published, you can use GoodBarber to keep track of how it's doing in terms of traffic, launches, page views and social media stats. QR code creation and a pop-up rating box are also available.
Verdict: GoodBarber features an intuitive interface with a large variety of creative and advanced tools at different price points to let customers put a lively, deep and complete app in front of the public.