Mobile apps for small businesses

Mobile apps - SmartphonesThere’s a flourishing market in smartphone applications, or 'apps', and thousands available. But how do you know which ones are best for you? James Ainsworth trawls through the marketplace to find the best smartphone apps for small businesses

Sales of smartphones are booming, and just over half the UK population now owns one. Alongside the phones is a flourishing market in mobile applications, or apps, which cater for a vast range of needs.

As more and more consumers turn to apps to do everything from accessing social media to finding local shops, there is an enormous opportunity for small businesses to reach customers. But apps can also help you carry out other business operations, such as managing admin on the move.

A mobile app for everything

For Emily Leary, head of digital at Lava, apps provide an essential means of keeping in touch with clients and industry peers.

Skype is an essential app for me, for text or audio communications with clients,” she explains. “And Twitter only really works as a business proposition if you monitor it constantly, so HootSuite is essential to keep up with customer feedback.”

But apps don’t just enable you to keep in touch. They can be used for marketing, administration and even travel planning. Beware of setting expectations too high, however - and don’t see your mobile as a replacement for your laptop.

“There are some things that are not practical to do on a phone, such as writing an in-depth blog on a tiny screen,” Leary points out. “And remember you can only open up one app at a time on an iPhone, so you can’t multitask,” she concludes.

But which are the best apps? Here’s a selection of some that may be useful to you.

Apps for reaching customers

TweetDeck

TweetDeck screenshotPlatform: iPhone, Android 

Cost: Free

This is a near identical replication of the desktop Twitter experience. It can even handle multiple accounts. Use it to respond to customers, promote offers and spread industry news. You can even share pictures of stock.

Alternative: Seesmic or HootSuite

Wordpress

Wordpress screenshotPlatform: Android, Blackberry, iPhone

Cost: Free

This mobile version of the popular blogging tool offers great usability. If you have announcements to make, observations to record or offers to promote, you can write a blog and publish it from anywhere - then promote it through Twitter.

Alternative: Tumblr, free for Android, Blackberry, iPhone

Foursquare

Foursquare logo

Platform: Android, Blackberry, iPhone, Pre

Cost: Free

Foursquare uses global positioning data to enable people to share information about specific locations. Users can automatically pick up recommendations for cafes, pubs, shops, and so on, within their vicinity. Some businesses are already using Foursquare as a kind of reward card for visitors who post recommendations.

Alternative: GoWalla, free for iPhone, Android

  • If you are a Vodafone UK customer, you can text "Foursquare" to 97886 from your Internet-enabled phone to get Foursquare.

Yell.com

Yell.com screenshot

Platform: Android, Blackberry, iPhone

Cost: Free

More than two million companies are listed in this directory, with profiles and mapped directions. Businesses can be called with one click or saved to the user’s phonebook. It makes great use of location-based search.

Alternative: LocalPeople, free for iPhone

Apps for managing admin and operations

ReQall

ReQall screenshot

Platform: Blackberry, iPhone

Cost: £15/year

An easy-to-use organiser, with to-do lists, voice input, alerts and automatic filing of notes using keywords. It also synchronises with Google Calendar and Evernote. Perfect for middle-of-the-night inspiration and it reduces Post-It note clutter.

Alternative: Remember the Milk, £16/year, iPhone

Tap Forms

Tap Forms screenshot

Platform: iPhone

Cost: £4.50

The more online accounts you open, the more passwords and login details you need to remember. Tap Forms remembers them for you and can be useful in emergencies.

Alternative: 1Password, £6.00, iPhone

Dropbox

Dropbox screenshotPlatform: Android, Blackberry, iPhone

Cost: Free

2GB of cloud space: if you have large files you need to send to clients or colleagues, Dropbox will synchronise them across computers and enable you to share them easily. You can also upload photos or video in an instant.

Alternative: SugarSync, free for Android, Blackberry, iPhone

Google Docs

Google Docs screenshotPlatform: iPhone

Cost: Free

Contained within the Google App for the iPhone, Google Docs enables you to view and edit Google documents from your phone and save them in the Google storage cloud for access from other devices. Word processing, spreadsheets and PDFs can all be viewed with ease.

Alternative: GDocs for Android, free for Android

FedEx

FedEx screenshotPlatform: iPhone

Cost: Free

The FedEx app allows you to track every move of incoming and outgoing packages. The app can be fully synchronised with the FedEx desktop application and will store any additional notes you wish to add to your live shipments.

Alternative: Delivery status touch, £2.20 for iPhone

As you can see, some apps are very useful and increase productivity significantly. Some merely brighten up your day or, in the case of Tea Round App (iPhone), enable you to resolve disputes about whose round of tea is next.

Apps for business travel

The Trainline

Trainline screenshotPlatform: iPhone

Cost: Free

While not packing quite the punch of the National Rail app, with no live train details, it is easy to use and great for planning ahead or on the hop. Save regular routes for faster search times.

Alternative: UK Train Times, £4.99 for iPhone

Waze

Waze logo

Platform: Android, iPhone, Windows Mobile

Cost: Free

This free satnav app is an impressive option, especially when considered against pricey alternatives. It builds up maps as users of the app drive around, so as more people use it it becomes more accurate.

Reviews are excellent, suggesting UK maps are more than adequate for everyday navigation. The app also uses data from users to warn of obstructions and jams.

Alternative: CoPilot, from £24.99 for iPhone, Android, Windows Mobile

Apps are evolving at a rapid rate and they are likely to further alter the way businesses operate – particularly in the area of buying and selling via phones. For example, Barclays Pingit makes it easy to send and receive money from your mobile phone, and apps like Square are causing a stir in the US.

As a modern small business, can you afford to ignore the flourishing apps market?