The apps have it

Read time 8min 50sec

To get a sense of how fast and furiously mobile technology is changing the IT landscape, one only has to look at new hit game Draw Something. Now the most downloaded app in more than 80 countries, it reached over 3 000 drawings per second at its peak. ”It took AOL nine years to get to one million users. It took Facebook nine months. It took Draw Something nine days,” notes research firm BI Intelligence.

Apps are now an estimated $10 billion market, growing at more or less 100% a year, the firm adds. By next year, mobile phones will overtake PCs as the most common Web access device worldwide, according to Gartner. It adds that fragmentation and chaos are the new normal, with several hundred new smartphones and tablet models - running more than 10 different mobile platforms - coming in 2012.

How do companies keep up in this rapidly changing environment, particularly as consumer apps raise the expectations for enterprise offerings?

They don't, says Brendan Martin, director of Silverkeys, which is why mobile development consultancies like his have to walk clients through the specifics. “The customer doesn't always know what they want. We help guide them through the process by getting them to determine their target market and customers.”

Adrian Frielinghaus, director at Maxxor Business Solutions, says there's been a surge of interest in app development over the past year. “We've gone from a position of having to go out and do a lot of convincing about the value of apps, to a position where we are taking calls from clients who are already sold on the need for an app and are looking to make it happen.

Ultimately, it's a business decision, not a technology decision.

Nick Jones, Gartner

“Basically, anyone with a Web site is asking themselves how they stay relevant in a world where apps are the consumer's first choice for interaction,” notes Frielinghaus.

However, Martin adds that while many of his clients know they could do with a mobile app, they aren't sure where to begin. “We suggest starting by developing their core Web application to degrade elegantly when viewed on a mobile device, as well as developing a mobile version of the Web application, which offers a subset of functionality and is available to any Web-enabled mobile device.

“This way, the client can test the waters of mobile without spending a large amount on mobile app development.”

Native, Web, hybrid

According to Gartner, enterprise investment in content and applications will increase significantly between 2012 and 2015. At the same time, fragmentation in ecosystems will present challenges in capitalising on opportunities.

This complicates things for enterprises, with many having to weigh up a number of elements in terms of accessibility, quality of experience and flexibility.

Frielinghaus says it depends on the type of industry the customer is in. “A lot of media clients are very interested in the iPad as a potential distribution channel for their content and are trying to figure out how to repackage and even re-engineer their value proposition for a touch-screen device.”

A lot also depends on the client's target market, he adds. “BlackBerry is very popular locally but in global markets the interest is more in spanning iOS and Android while still keeping an eye on the potential of Windows Phone 7.”

Martin agrees: “For example, for a golf app we developed for the US market, we used Apple, while a textbook reading app aimed at lower-income local users we ran on BlackBerry.”

“Once you have traction on your primary platform, then you can port your app to the other platforms,” says Frielinghaus. “The only problem with this approach is that you end up with the problem of multiple codebases supporting multiple platforms. So the approach we follow with our own products is to start with a cross-platform HTML5 codebase.

“Native code 'wrappers' handle the delivery of the code as an app; careful coding ensures that the major smartphone, tablet and PC platforms are supported; and graceful degradation of advanced features to simpler ones takes care of backwards compatibility with older browsers.

The customer doesn't always know what they want.

Brendan Martin, Silverkeys

“In our view, having codebase delivering the vast majority of your core application is the best way to manage the fragmentation in the market.”

At Gartner's mobile strategy event last month, VP and distinguished analyst Nick Jones said much depended on the business trade-off between the quality of experience and the size of the audience. While native apps have the edge when it comes to sophistication and operational flexibility, Web apps rule in terms of the addressable audience, cost per user and agility, says Gartner.

“Ultimately, it's a business decision, not a technology decision,” said Jones. He noted that clients often use a mix of apps to address two audiences. Banks, for example, will focus their attention on high-end users with a native app and use mobile Web for the rest.

Game changer?

Mobile apps lab

A joint initiative between the Department of Science and Technology, infoDev, Nokia and Finland's Ministry of Foreign Affairs aims to train and build the business and technical skills of the developer community.
The lab's focus is on developing locally relevant content, solutions and services, and connecting them to local, regional and international markets.
This is key in an era where mobile phone use in Africa has increased at an annual rate of 65% each year for the past five years. This is nearly twice the global average.

Jones stressed that mobile is only one element of a much wider, multichannel trend, and pointed to Web HTML5 as an important emerging platform.

HTML5 has strong vendor and platform support, with the backing of Apple, RIM, Android, Opera, and Windows Phone 7, among others. It offers valuable features for mobile apps, including geo-location, threading, networking, new mark-up options and graphics.

But there are just as many challenges, Jones warned, such as the wide range of browsers in the installed base, different feature sets, incomplete HTML5 implementations and no mechanism for key functions such as alerts.

Nevertheless, by 2015, half of the apps that today would be written as native mobile apps will be delivered as mobile Web apps, said Jones. “We believe the most likely scenario is that HTML5 will become mature enough, capable enough, and widely available so that it will supplant native code for a significant set of applications.”

Frielinghaus says HTML5 has tremendous momentum behind it, even though the full spec isn't finalised yet. “As time goes by, the capabilities of HTML5 browsers will continue to grow, and as they do, the power of the browser as an application runtime will start to rival that of the native programming environments,” he says.

Rick Ventura, business development manager at Apprica, agrees: “We think HTML5 is a big threat due to the high costs of multi-platform development. It's also going to become easier to integrate components of mobile apps using HTML5. We already see all the major players using HTML5 as their apps including Google, Yahoo, Facebook and eBay.”

Others, however, see the dominance of HTML5 as unlikely, for several reasons. These include insufficient improvements in network bandwidth and latency, resulting in congestion and poor-performing Web applications. Also, native platforms could gain features that HTML5 can't match and so native code will be required to create competitive applications.

“HTML5 is very powerful and opens up new possibilities for the Web, like location-based products. Having said that, there are a number of things HTML5 just cannot do and native apps will always have the upper-hand,” says Euan Jonker, CEO of Web development firm Unomena.

For Frielinghaus, HTML5 versus native isn't really an either-or decision. “An app is what the consumer wants on his phone, but he doesn't care what technology makes that app work. If it is HTML5 inside that app and it does the job, then everyone is happy.

“We believe the Web-native battle isn't a fight to the death. The future won't be about apps or the Web, but rather will see increasing crossover between the two.”

Early days

As companies begin getting their feet wet in mobile app development, certain elements are emerging as key considerations in the decision-making process.

According to Frielinghaus, cost is one of the top concerns. “Everyone is interested in building apps and can see that they need to understand how their business adapts to the post-PC era. But until they have had a chance to get something out there and experiment a bit, there is a reluctance to make the kinds of investments it takes to build production-quality apps for all the major platforms.“

Jonker says the major issues he encounters are timing and confidentiality. “Larger clients wish to be first on market with a new venture before their competition picks up on the developments.”

Ventura adds that clients are still weighing up the costs for application development and how to justify the spend. “This is changing daily, as more clients realise the marketing and business benefits of reaching existing and new clients.”

Most clients are concerned about the features, cost and ROI, says Martin. Apps range in cost from about R30 000 to R300 000, and can take anywhere from three weeks to three months to develop, he adds.

Martin says he expects continued growth in the app development space in future, as more smartphones make their way onto the market and entrepreneurs and companies spot the opportunities.

“Over the past few years, smartphones have changed the way we engage with technology,” adds Frielinghaus. “People inside organisations today have an expectation of technology that is defined by the way their Facebook app works. They want apps on their devices that connect to the service on the cloud, and they want their enterprise services to work the same way.

“Consumer technology has become a driver of change inside corporations.”

Unomena's Jonker, for one, sees a promising future in mobile sites: “It is by far the most accessible form of communication in Africa. Most people have access to them and companies are starting to realise this.

“Every project we undertake is either mobile-oriented or has a mobile component attached.”

Amid all this uncertainty, one thing is undeniably clear - companies had better start exploring their options, because mobile's flame is going to be burning bright for a long time to come.

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