The last several years have seen an explosion in mobile applications. By the end of 2013, both Android’s Google Play and the Apple iOS App Store will be hosting a million apps – and we have only seen minor signs of slowing growth.

Where the heck are all these apps coming from? Thousands upon thousands of developers are working hard to pump out games, social networks, utility and productivity apps, news readers… if you can dream it, someone is building an app for it.

So, how much time and effort is going into feeding this beast? Exactly how long does it take to build a quality native mobile app (not a mobile Web, HTML5 app)? Boston-based Backend-as-a-Service (BaaS) mobile-cloud-platform vendor Kinvey set out to answer just that question.

More Than 4 Months!?

In a survey of 100 native mobile developers, Kinvey determined that creating a fully functional and polished app takes a team about 18 weeks from start to finish. That includes both front-end design and user interface as well as back-end integration like push notifications, user management and authentication, caching and sharing through social channels.

I know what many app developers are thinking when they hear that: “18 weeks?! Who the hell are these turtle-slow developers?” On the other hand, enterprise developers are probably saying: “18 weeks?! We are only halfway through by that point.”

Given the sheer volume of apps published on a monthly basis (the App Store averaged 641 new apps a day from September 2012 to January 2013), taking 4.5 months for one app does seem like a long development cycle. But as many smartphone users already know, not all of those apps (probably not the vast majority of them) are any good.

Some apps are naturally easier to make than others, like reverse-engineered “copycat” apps or feature functions like Android wallpaper apps. For instance, it was rumored that it took Facebook engineers only a matter of days to clone Snapchat with its similar Poke app.

Android vs. iOS: Which Takes Longer?

What if you are developing specifically for iOS or Android? Does one take longer than another? The answer used to be a definite Yes, Android took longer because of the fragmentation issues of developing an app for a wide variety of smartphones.

That is not quite as true as it used to be though. Google spent a good portion of 2012 updating and streamlining the Android Software Developers Kit (SDK) to better handle varying screen sizes, pixel densities and operating system versions. Many improvements came to Android app development processes with both the Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean releases.

“Assuming equal skill level on the part of the developer, it shouldn’t take longer to build an app on one platform or the other,” said  Joe Chernov, VP of marketing on behalf of Kinvey’s engineering team. “In the fairly recent past, Android took longer because of the complexity of multiple device form factors. However Android’s vastly improved developer tools and SDK has removed that complexity. Now a developer can use a designer tool to instantly see what the UI will look like on multiple devices. Yet while building the app might take the same amount of time on each platform, what does take longer is the approval process. For Android, approval takes hours (and there’s a self-service option that removes approval entirely), while Apple can take weeks.”

The infographic below is the result of Kinvey’s developer survey, conducted in partnership with AYTM (Ask Your Target Market). The infographic itself was created by Developers were asked 12 questions on how long it would take to perform a variety of functions such as integrating server-side data storage or design work. Respondents varied from different aspects of Web and mobile development, with 30 identifying themselves as mobile Web (but not native) developers, 27 as strictly native developers and 43 as enterprise-level developers. The 18-week-development-cycle conclusion was reached by adding up how long developers said it would take to perform certain actions. The data seems to show a standard deviation of about two weeks in either direction.

So, how long will it take you to develop your native mobile app, start to finish? Really, there is no easy answer to that question. Dave Bisceglia, founder and CEO of Boston-based iOS game development studio The Tap Lab sums it up nicely:

“The less exciting but entirely true answer is, ‘It depends,’ ” Bisceglia said. “I’ve seen very talented teams crank out high-quality apps in just a few weeks. However, the demand for higher production quality in apps has certainly risen in recent years. Accordingly, app dev cycles have extended and we’re seeing folks spend anywhere from 6 to 12 months on more complex projects.”

Note: Click the infographic to see the full-size version.

Top image courtesy of Shutterstock.