SEIZING THE ‘APP’0RTUNITY

Mobile platforms such as Google’s Android, Apple’s iOS and Microsoft’s Windows Mobile provide an opportunity for programmers, from individuals in bedrooms to corporate high fliers, to launch businesses with vast development budgets to enhance their brands. This is done by means of ‘apps’. An app is a piece of software that is available often for free but sometimes for a small fee which significantly expands a mobile device’s capability.

When smartphones and other mobile devices such as tablet computers first became popular, apps were generally directed at productivity. So instead of gaining access to emails or your calendar via the browser, a dedicated programme designed specifically for a mobile device was available to perform the same task with a single touch of the screen.

Very quickly, however, the market expanded to include every possible use from games to online shopping to banking to flight information.

What is so appealing about mobile apps is that unlike the days that were dominated by desktop computers and the Windows operating system, designing a successful piece of software and getting it to market is accessible to anyone who knows how to write code.

The cost of entry is low and so is the price of failure. Indeed, in the world of writing code, failure is viewed as a necessary step toward success and nothing to fear.

Take the case of English schoolboy, Nick D’Aloisio, who at the age of 17, having taught himself how to write code, sold an app he designed when he was still only 15 to Yahoo for a reputed $30m and a job with the company. D’Alosio’s app, Summly, cleverly condenses long news stories into shorter pieces.

It was the fact he developed these apps as a hobby while studying for exams without any advanced training in programming that should alert computer-savvy young people all over the Middle East to the opportunities, whatever their background or circumstances.

D’Aloisio’s example is by no means unique, either. Many self-taught teenagers have launched similarly successful careers, simply because they came up with ideas everyone else wanted and they had the basic skills to make it happen.

It is essential that young people (the younger the better) are taught at schools to code. There is a dearth of programmers with the necessary skills globally and competition for talent among even the biggest technology firms is fierce. In the Middle East, technology companies complain regularly about the skills gap they face in the region, which threaten to put the brakes on a sector that is becoming increasingly essential to the knowledge-based economy of the future.

So the opportunities are there for those who can take it. More broadly, when you learn to code you acquire the ability to understand problems, to think logically and to solve them. These are skills which are valuable in any profession. However, where schools come up short, there are a number of free online options such as Scratch, offered by MIT and used by Harvard.

For already established businesses a mobile presence is no longer an option. An app is unique chance for a business to integrate itself into a consumer’s life in a way never before possible. The consumer will, literally, carry you around in their pocket.

Infocell is one of the region’s leading mobile apps developers and is now expanding into Asia. The Italian- owned company, based in Dubai, saw a 29% growth in revenue last year to $18m. The company has found that apps which engage their users as opposed to those which provide services in a passive way are the most popular among the region’s users, who are benefiting from competition and aggressive pricing between providers.

As is the case in the rest of the world, apps which utilise a device’s location services, such as making bookings at local restaurants, will drive future growth, as will gaming.

In exchange for offering the app free of charge a business may harvest user data that is more extensive and accurate than any previous survey, allowing them to tailor products and services to individuals. Through an app, a company can know who is using their service, their gender, age and location, which times of day they use their services, for what purpose and other revealing behavioural statistics.

The business model is an evolving and confused one, though. For every entrepreneur who invests time and money on an app there are hobbyists who, just for fun, develop apps and give them away for free, disrupting the market.

Whatsapp, which uses the Internet to send and receive texts, pictures and videos has overtaken traditional texting as the most popular SMS service. Texting was a big revenue stream for mobile service providers but Whatsapp is, on some platforms, free in the first instance and then available for an annual fee equivalent to sending a single media message as a normal text message.

However, voice and text services such as Whatsapp, Skype and Viber have either banned these services or plan to. Questions over funding sources and encryption methods have seen the services fall foul of the some of the region’s strict communication laws, something which future developers will have to navigate.

As capacity and smartphone use increases in the region so will the mobile app industry which, itself, will drive growth.

That growth must come at a cost for someone, though. What is being found around the world is that as demand increases capacity is slow to catch up and the user experience has suffered. No one, even in parts of the world where the telecoms sector is highly developed, can now expect 100% quality. That would be expensive and the question arises of who will pay for it. The consumer is increasingly taking for granted that most of what they do on their mobiles, once they have paid for their contract, is free.

The telecoms companies are reluctant to invest in an infrastructure only for other sectors to benefit.

However, in a part of the world where creativity and innovation are abundant natural resources, the mobile app sector, if allowed, looks set to play a major part in the future of the region’s economies.