Q. What exactly is an iPhone application and why is it useful?

A. An iPhone app is essentially a tiny website that taps into your iPhone’s capabilities such as its GPS, camera or compass. But, unlike a regular website loaded on your phone, an app is built to communicate directly with the available hardware of the device, seamlessly receiving and organising information in a more useable way. A good app can therefore make it easier for your client to organise the way they use your services – and to use them more often. For example, the Waitrose app loads all of the supermarket’s 18,000 product lines onto your phone in a searchable format, enabling you to compile a shopping list offline and order its delivery when connected at the touch of a button. Time Out Magazine’s app lists events happening in your local area. Other apps are business enterprises in their own right, with one of the most popular in the Apple store, the iFart app, enabling users to play fart sounds of different design for the reasonable price of $0.99.

Q. Is my company’s product or service suited to an app?

A. Just because Apple smartphones are all the rage, it doesn’t mean it is worth investing in an app for your company. It is important to have a clear vision of the purpose and strategy of putting out an app. Online media adviser Jag Singh says there are two main kinds of apps: a market differentiator that offers a unique service (like the Waitrose app), and a brand enhancer that offers subtly branded entertainment (such as an iPhone game). Most apps fail to use one of these basic strategies, however. Singh says: “When an app is just a branded RSS feed, that is when it tends to fail. There’s about 150,000-200,000 apps in the Apple apps store. 100,000 are just branded RSS feeds.” There is no point, in other words, in simply sending updates that users can organise for themselves on Twitter or Google Reader. Instead, entrepreneurs should consider first, whether their target market includes a significant chunk of the UK’s 2m iPhone users and, second, whether they can offer a valuable service to those people – up-to-the-minute updates for spread betters, for example, or ultra-local information for when one is out and about. Alternatively, if the aim is viral marketing, it is important to have an original and entertaining design. Ultimately, of course, there is no accounting for whether your game or gimmick catches on. As the iFart app shows, sometimes the simplest ideas are the most successful.

Q. Where can I?get one and how much should it cost?

A. Developing an app can cost anything between £3,000 and £15,000, depending on its level of complexity. In addition, it’s important to remember the cost of ongoing development to keep it compatible as the iPhone hardware and software upgrades – and to decide in advance whether to charge users for the upgrade. Unfortunately, making an app is not really a DIY project because it requires familiarity with a specific web platform. Unlike the US, the UK lacks a wealth of large developers who will knock them together. Instead, the market here consists of numerous freelancers and small agencies best found online. Just make sure your developer understands your business aims as well as the basic specifications. Try www.mobileroadie.com.