Custom Mobile App Development vs. App Builders

People developing mobile elements with the help of pre-made templates

Now here we are again. You’re probably searching for a universal mobile app builder or googling “how much does it cost to create an app”. We’re coming up with the nasty “It depends”.

Forget this lame, we see you won’t buy it. Meaning, the “it depends” thing is still true, but hold back on dissing us. We have some R&D-powered answers you can trust (or not). Either way, come along, let’s untangle the custom vs. packaged dilemma.

Tailored vs. off-the-shelf: love–hate relationship

The moment you start considering a new app project, you dig that choosing between mobile platform vendors and custom mobile app development teams is a heck of a mess. Good news is that:

  1. a. Everybody feels that way.
  2. b. You shouldn’t.

That’s right, consulting firms and tech vendors may talk you into buying their licenced software as if it were pretty much everything-in-one. Sort of a cost-efficient version of Beyonce show, in a word. Custom mobile app developers may chuckle and swear that ready-made solutions lovers end up double-spending, as canned software lasts no longer than a teenage marriage.

Are they all like that? The thing is, they all happen to have the point. It’s just that competitors always play to their strengths.

Anya Taylor-Joy playing chess in The Queen's Gambit

Trying to be civil with market rivals.
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DIY mobile app builders: a slippery slope? Atlas shrugged

Since when it’s become that much of a crime to intend saving a buck out there at popular mobile app development platforms? By no means we judge this wish. Cases are when the MADPs, as Gartner touted them, are more than enough for you to be done with your needs.

You’ve seen there are tons of decent mobile app development platforms like Visual Studio, Firebase, Xcode, Android Studio, and OutSystems, to name a few. And yep, they almost definitely allow to quickly build, test, and sometimes deploy and maintain mobile apps.

What do I do with those mobile platforms?

Think of MADP as a citizen developer environment. Meaning, you need little to no engineering skills to run it. What have we here? Typically, we got:

  1. 1. Mobile backend as a service (BaaS)
  2. 2. Front-end development instruments
  3. 3. Application programming interface (API) management tools
  4. 4. Mobile app management (MAM) kit for you to deploy and secure apps
  5. 5. Native mobile, web, and hybrid app engineering capabilities, as the case may be

A Confused Travolta frame from Pulp Fiction

Still not quite sure how to sort it all out.
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Some fully-fledged MADPs boast extra middleware and back-end services for you to deliver push notifications or build data storage and authentication features. Depending on your data security preferences, you can also choose between cloud-based or on-premises mobile app development platforms. And again, with regards to your engineering background, consider either a codeless or low-code MADP.

With that wealth of tools at hand, why shouldn’t try to build an app? Well, sorry to discourage you, but we talk business, and it’s all about risks. So it’s time to quit being a zealous trier. You better be a result-driven doer.

Let’s be honest. None of that home engineering stuff really matters until you aren’t certain enough about the purpose of your mobile project.

Set clear objectives to fit the bill

Yeah, we know that setting objectives sounds totally toxic. Still, there are things you can’t get out of your life by no means. Like rain, traffic congestion, cheese chips, and youtube ads. Also joining the list, success competition.

Now that our job one is to outshine and shatter your next door, let’s settle things with your deal’s priorities. We dare suppose the major ones should be:

  1. a. Stick to the budget
  2. b. Build appropriate functional capabilities
  3. c. Easily maintain the product
  4. d. Trigger fast ROI
  5. e. Live happily ever after

The Homelander from The Boys on the American flag background

Finally set those priorities. Good for you!
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In a nutshell, any deal means that there’s give and there’s take. Let’s think that our mission is to make it to a win-win success story. Which basically reads “avoid spending a fortune while ending up with a complete debacle”, if you will. Sounds quite doable, right?

Sure, first and foremost, we believe a majority of stakeholders consider contractors with regards to the points we’ve mentioned above. But next go the specifics that actually define the choice between custom and mobile platform-based app development.

Now what? Is it research again? Never bother. Sit back — we’ve laid everything out for your convenience.

Why go packaged?

Everything comes with a price, whatever it means. When you need to just get a bite, you don’t go downtown Manhattan for overpriced beer and nachos. Unless you’re about to get stuck there for a lockdown, and that must be your last eating out in a lifetime. As of MADPs, they are huge today, and that’s for a reason.

Four characters of the popular series sitting at the table

Overpriced food? Love it! App engineering platforms? Never heard!
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First, they are known to be cheaper than custom mobile application development on average. Second, the MADPs have really monumental community support. No wonder that they grow like mad, as if tomorrow never comes. Is it to say we should give up on custom mobile apps, right away?

For God’s sake no, that’s apparently not enough for informed decision. To be on the safe side, you’d better check out more criteria for going packaged.

A checklist for taking mobile platform-based route

Getting straight to the case, you should opt for off-the-shelf software when:

  1. 1. You need an app for less than 10K end users

User growth converts into higher maintenance costs. Speaking of which, a pre-built software license may save you a big something in case it’s substantially lower than a TCO for a custom app. Better be at least ten times less expensive, no kidding.

  1. 2. Your app is to handle a typical business workflow

Pre-built software can well meet common requirements to app’s internal logic and dependencies.

  1. 3. Your products or services aren’t unique

This enables you to implement packaged software as is, with no customization needed.

  1. 4. The packaged solution has a uniform interface

This allows you to start onboarding right away, without time-consuming adoption.

  1. 5. There’s a harsh implementation deadline

Extra hours may creep in upon a custom app implementation, and this can be too much of a risk if you’re under harsh time pressure. Then you’d better get ahead of it.

Emma Thompson in Years and Years

Check! Four out of five, seems like enough for a choice.
Image credit:

The major reasons to consider mobile app development platforms are more or less like this. Note. Of all we’ve mentioned, please don’t focus on costs alone. The choice is not a piece of cake as it may seem first.

Why opt for custom mobile application development?

Now, global tech vendors conspiracy, software fraud, and a secret 5G mission behind the scenes… None of this we’re going to discuss, kidding. Apparently, it’s time to stand for custom app development a bit. This brings up the question: why have average when you need special?

Not that we meant to paint it all black and white, but a pre-built solution will always be a sort of compromise. Say, you’ve purchased it some couple years ago to support your enterprise workflows. Now, your business has grown, you explore new areas. This way, you come to see that software as a service has substantial limitations.

A person from Black Mirror checking her social rating

When everything went super wrong with your app…
Image credit: patchworkplanet

Just the time you need enhanced scalability and security, your SaaS offers what? No modification opportunities, no updating control, no timely support, no nothing? Bad luck, you’re toast.

A checklist for custom mobile app development path

Here go the cases when one can make sure that custom apps aren’t overrated:

  1. 1. You plan multiple users, with exponential growth

This is especially critical for social networking apps, games, sharing platforms — anything that clearly fails unless it breaks at least hundreds of thousand downloads.

  1. 2. You offer unique products or services. Or want them look unique

Specialized offerings take non-trivial approaches. You can’t blow your customers away with a mass market solution.

  1. 3. Your business niche is highly competitive. Got to stand out

Yeah, it’s been tough there around commerce, logistics, IT, and whatnot for probably ages. Now that we face continuous lockdown risks, beware becoming a sitting duck — stay ahead of the game.

  1. 4. You have a tech-rich and data-intensive enterprise environment

A company that has numerous data endpoints and handles much analytics naturally needs a tailored app. Scalable architecture is also obligatory, for there will be integrations and updates all the way.

So how much does it cost to create an app?

Again, just to be clear, there cannot be a universal estimation or a totally fixed price. Not even out of basic professional courtesy, but for common sense’s sake, we don’t do forceful statements. So to get this straight, we’re going to outline the commercial viability of a custom mobile app as compared to a package-based solution.

Most likely, you plan building something far more complex than a flashlight. Need to use real-time GPS to track and flag locations? Require a solution with a steady and secure internet connection so as to process payments? Then it’s a data-driven or functionality app that you’re after. Which makes your project go so out of the “up to 10 thousand” pricing league!

A person from Money Heist lying on a pile of money

Keep calm. You don’t need that much.
Image credit:

In case you wish to create a gaming or social media app, get ready to shell out much more than that, as design costs for this kind of projects are times higher. So let’s better make assumptions for a medium-complexity mobile app, something around lifestyle or food and drink categories.

App development costs: breaking even

Suppose you don’t have some couple thousand spare bucks up your sleeve that you care little about. Neither do we, getting your point. Meaning, together we’ll be thrilled to save the more the better, if possible. For a starter, let’s okay on further assessing a minimum viable product, as it helps validate your idea with a cost-efficient solution.

What could it be? Better something secured from a shutdown failure. Remember the crime things we used to do for what feels like a century ago? Naked-face shopping, crowdy meetups, you know. From 2020 on, it’s all about delivery and transportation of whatnot.

Kevin from Home alone picking up pizza delivery

Yep, 2020 wasn’t much about dieting and regular workouts.
Image credit:

For our case, let’s assume you wish to create a mobile platform that aggregates store offerings at scale. Kind of several shops within different categories — all rolled into one. Meaning, users check in — and voilà, they can access a wide range of goods around multiple providers, with no need to switch between their dedicated apps or sites.

This implies you require an app that utilizes maps and allows consistent administration, easy communication, delivery management, and transaction processing. Here is where we’d better get a firm grasp of the scope of work. On high level, the functional requirements are going to look more or less like this:

  1. 1.Registration and authentication capabilities
  2. 2. Profile that allows updating or deleting personal data and changing password
  3. 3. Catalog with a set of options like search, listed or mapped categories view, filtering, and more
  4. 4. Cart, as no one can get away with not having one
  5. 5. Favorites category (proves being urgent, not solely out of obligation)
  6. 6. Orders processing, tracking, and history logging
  7. 7.Payments processing (cards integrations included)
  8. 8.Feedback form (better safe than sorry)
  9. 9. Notifications, as how on earth they can be missing

Taking the chance with mobile platforms

Case number one. Between custom mobile app development and package-based engineering, you take the second. No contest. An independent contractor offers an MVP that uses Firebase on the backend, with maintenance calculations for less than 100K users.

Time, team, money: counting up

Based upon our R&D for a Firebase-powered app engineering and deployment, a total time estimation will be between 85 and 110 man-days (average 97 plus risks coverage). The detailed breakdown is as follows:

  • Registration and authentication – 7 man-days
  • Profile – 9 man-days
  • Catalog – 16 man-days
  • Cart – 11 man-days
  • Favorites – 5 man-days
  • Orders – 19 man-days
  • Payments – 18 man-days
  • Feedback form – 5 man-days
  • Notifications – 7 man-days

Evan Almighty on city background

When they said the rollout is going to be quick.
Image credit:

The team will most likely look like this:

  • 1 Backend developer
  • 1 UI/UX designer
  • 1 Business analyst
  • 2 Quality assurance engineers
  • 1 Project manager
  • 2 Mobile developers

To wrap this all up, total costs for the Firebase MVP can be from $34K to $44K (with $38.675K on average). Is it an insane waste or just the right amount to pay it off, how do you know?

Packaged software gives you certain advantages

Speaking about Firebase, they are:

  1. a. No need for creating a complicated logic
  2. b. You only pay if there is traffic
  3. c. Your app’s database capabilities allow for adapting it to offline work
  4. d. You’ll have access to multiple services like Cloud Firestore, Authentication, Analytics, and more
  5. e. Firebase has a discount program for startups, so you may grab an opportunity to cut the costs

However, there’s a huge point that can be a dealbreaker once and for all. Okay, what’s the catch?

Maintenance, or the devil is in the details

Any luck predicting your user and traffic growth? Not specifically that we meant this being a red flag. Oh wait, we mean it. Basically, the traffic will be a key to the total cost of maintenance for any Firebase-powered solution. Say, your users start actively chatting, sharing images, or (Geez, no!) updating locations and refreshing the map every other minute.

Even worse if you had in mind there will be thousands of users, but it turns out you’ve already broken tens of thousands. If the platform’s traffic counters catch this leap, which they surely do, they bill a pretty fortune out of you.

Leonardo DiCaprio bites a fist in Wolf of Wall Street

How come the traffic soars that fast?
Image credit:

Firebase provides generous limits as you get started. Once you’re outside of your free plan limit, you move to pay-as-you-go and this makes a difference. You may end up paying as much as $25K per month for 500 thousand users and that’s not the limit. Impressive, right?

Fresh-start with custom mobile application development

Case number two. You opt for maxing out your app’s flexibility and reach out to reputable custom mobile app developers. They offer building your app upon a tailored backend, with enhanced capabilities, scalable architecture, and comprehensive guidance and support. Whole thing in 110 to 135 man-days (124 average). Not in a flash, yep.

But that doesn’t come out of nowhere. No secret that custom from-scratch engineering takes more hours of high-qualified experts.

  • Registration and authentication – 9 man-days
  • Profile – 11 man-days
  • Catalog – 20 man-days
  • Cart – 16 man-days
  • Favorites – 7 man-days
  • Orders – 23 man-days
  • Payments – 22 man-days
  • Feedback form – 8 man-days
  • Notifications – 9 man-days

Speaking of the squad, you’ll need:

  • 2 Backend developers
  • 1 UI/UX designer
  • 1 Business analyst
  • 2 Quality assurance engineers
  • 1 Project manager
  • 2 Mobile developers

Within the European hourly rates, total estimated costs will be around $44K to $54K (with $49.780K on average). Not that it was the most accessible entry level, sure. But, again, the pricing completely depends on your future app’s capabilities, so there must be no stabs in the back.

Hands shake from Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Agreed upon your project’s scope and feeling quite presidential.
Image credit:

It’s always “should I stay or should I go”

Except for a considerable yet predictable spending, custom mobile app development involves some other known unknowns. Basically, you should be aware that:

  1. a. The backend code will still need continuous maintenance
  2. b. Complex app architecture planning takes time
  3. c. It’s necessary to handle the dependencies between the app and external services like chats and geolocalization
  4. d. Development team should plan custom servers’ scalability (load-balancing, routing)
  5. e. Performance tuning takes precision and time as well
  6. f. No magic. Nine women don’t make a baby in a month

Joe Biden performance during 2020 elections

Go ask Joe. He knows a thing or two about waiting.
Image credit: Reuters

Playing the final card for custom mobile app developers

The vendor whose offer looks cheaper and implies less effort at first sight often becomes a top-seller, that’s no wonder. For a simple app that utilizes little traffic, a mobile platform can pretty much be a deal for a profit. Yet, in the long run, the winning solution will be the one that’s built with enough scalability in mind. Sounds like a pretentious TED talk, but still.

So, here comes the moment when we explain all that kudos to custom development.

The critical selling points of custom mobile apps

  1. 1. Full control over security settings
  2. 2. Freedom to fine-tune your app infrastructure
  3. 3. Post-launch opportunity to optimize costs in line with the actual traffic
  4. 4. No limitations for user and traffic growth
  5. 5. Ability to integrate as much internal and external services as you need
  6. 6. Your app’s capabilities and tools are exclusively tailored to your needs and business environment
  7. 7. You can discuss the maintenance and support commitments so to avoid unpredicted spending
  8. 8. You can all the way improve your app and thus get even happier

A little something for wrap-up

Looks like we’ve got to the bottom of this custom vs. packaged thing. Believe we’ve put it clear enough for you to make an informed decision, or else we tortured our R&D all for nothing. Whenever you need an insightful consultation or a trusted custom mobile app development team, you have us. By “us” we mean a qualified squad of 100+ cute-bearded engineers, tech ladies, and some old-school clean-shaven guys (those work well too).

Hug you goodbye, stay tuned.


Darya Korsak

Technical Copywriter

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