A startup is looking to take the hard work out of creating mobile applications and porting them to the iPhone, BlackBerry and Windows Mobile platforms,  through an online service that gives novice developers simple templates for various types of businesses and organisations.

With an eye to software novices, Mobile On Services' BuildAnApp service tackles a problem that has plagued professional mobile developers for years: Unlike on the web and in the world of PCs, there are many different platforms to write for if you want to reach many mobile users. Once a customer has gone through the steps on the BuildAnApp site to create a new application, Mobile On uses its proprietary software to package the app for three of the major smartphone platforms and also develop a mobile-optimised website, said company co-founder Scott Pearson.

Users get 30 days free to design the application and populate it with content such as news, restaurant menus and click-to-dial phone numbers. After that, they pay to bring new content into the application. Mobile On will submit it to Apple's App Store for US$19.99, including resubmissions if it is rejected.

The Minneapolis company designed BuildAnApp for small businesses, retail stores, nonprofit organizations and professionals such as doctors. To build an application, users simply pick the template for their type of organization, choose from among typical types of pages to put within the app, and populate the app with information. Then they can select people they want to alert to the application, and Mobile On will send email messages to those people with a link to a download page. Users with a supported phone can then download the application direct. The applications can be kept private with access passwords.

Mobile applications are getting a lot of attention, but much of the capability a small business needs to offer customers can be delivered via a mobile website, which can be updated with new information for no additional charge, industry analysts said. However, Mobile On's Pearson pointed out a few advantages to having an app instead of relying solely on a web page to reach customers. Apps let consumers access and use information even when they are out of range of the cellular data network, they tend to look better than mobile websites because they are optimized for the hardware platform, and they usually move faster than the mobile web because they operate locally, Pearson said.

For most small businesses, a mobile application will be primarily a tool for keeping existing customers loyal rather than attracting new ones, Pearson acknowledged. Apart from sending out the notification emails to current contacts, Mobile On Services won't handle marketing of the apps against the growing tide of mobile software, such as the more than 100,000 applications now on Apple's App Store.

Analysts liken the emergence of a service such as BuildAnApp to the evolution of web development from pure HTML coding to easy-to-use design services such as GeoCities and Blogger.

"It's certainly a signal that mobile applications have arrived," said Avi Greengart of Current Analysis. However, a mobile app still isn't as critical to a small business as a website, he said.

Unlike a website, a mobile app sits on the home screen (or extended home screen) of the consumer's phone, In-Stat's Allen Nogee pointed out. An application can create more presence and recognition than a mobile website to which a user has to navigate in a browser, he said.

A pizza restaurant and a small clothing store created applications during BuildAnApp's closed beta test, which just concluded, Pearson said. The pizza place's application includes, among other things, the menu and a button for clicking to call the shop and place an order, he said. The clothing store shows pictures of new items in the shop.

BuildAnApp's 16 templates include ones for a real estate agent, a school, a sports league and a religious organisation. There is also a template for "other" that includes a wide range of page types selected from the other templates. The company is also developing a "pro" version of the service for skilled developers creating more sophisticated applications, Pearson said.

However, Mobile On doesn't plan to support the kind of sophisticated development provided by companies such as Rhomobile and Appcelerator, he said. Those companies offer online app development for developers working in languages such as Ruby, JavaScript and HTML.

"Our intent is to provide mobility to the masses," Pearson said. "It gives these small organisations a way to have a mobile presence without spending a lot of money."

By the end of the year, Mobile On plans to add Google's Android platform. Other plans include adding support for Nokia, Symbian and Palm; adding APIs to bring existing web and database content into the applications; and letting customers integrate their applications with online services such as Facebook, Twitter and the OpenTable restaurant reservation system.

Though BuildAnApp has just entered its open beta test, which is likely to continue into the first quarter of next year, Mobile On is now charging after a customer's 30-day free trial. Users can pay $7.99 for a one-time content or application update or pay $14.99 per month to make as many updates as they wish. Unlimited updates for six months are available for $59.99.