Are We Heading For A Mobile App Revolution?
Mobile users and mobile software developers could be in for the time of their lives as companies explore different ways of getting mobile apps to cell phone customers. We take a closer look at this trend and what might emerge.

Mobisy, a Bangalore-based mobile start-up, recently conducted a survey of more than 500 mobile enthusiasts to understand what exactly they wanted to do on their smartphones. The basic aim of the survey was to narrow down on the killer application(s) for Indian users. The results of that survey were quite surprising. The most desired features were media sharing applications – to share photos, video and audio files, followed by applications to do a proximity search or local search that would help users to find a coffee shop or an ATM in their vicinity. These results were surprising because these applications already exist. There are several decent products that serve exactly the same needs mentioned in the survey. Obviously, there is a very low awareness of what’s already available.

This discrepancy was very intriguing for me so I decided to double check the findings of the Mobisy study by doing some research on my own. I e-mailed some of my friends and asked them about the application(s) they had downloaded and installed on their smartphones. To my great surprise, most of them confirmed that they hadn’t installed any applications, and were only using the apps that came bundled with their respective devices. But most of them wanted to use their phones for something more than what they were already using it for.

A lack of ‘app awareness’?

These observations highlight a problem that is hindering the adoption of mobile applications, issues relating to application discovery, application compatibility and usage [usability]. For example, media sharing is the most ‘desired’ feature for mobiles but we know that there are many applications to accomplish that objective. How do users discover and install those applications without worrying too much about compatibility, the software platform, network dependency, Microsoft MCTS Training etc.

Finding and installing an application on a mobile phone is not a trivial task. There are too many variables. Currently, there are a number of operating systems for mobile phones. Each of them have two or more flavours, and in most cases there are two input methods (keypad and touchscreen) for each flavour. So if you want to ensure a reasonably good footprint for your application, you need to make sure you support all these scenarios. Factor in the constraints of device capabilities and restrictions imposed by telecom operators, and you have a perfect recipe for chaos!

However, this situation is changing and a harbinger of this change is Apple’s iPhone App store. Apple’s iPhone and its innovations have been discussed to death in the media but amidst all this hoopla, most of us haven’t paid enough attention to the iPhone App store. In the long run, the App store can prove to bring bigger advantages for Apple than the other key features of the iPhone because sooner or later, every feature of iPhone will surely be copied by other handset manufacturers. So it makes sense to spend some time understanding the concept in detail.

An ideal market place

The iPhone Application Store is essentially a market place where developers can list their iPhone software for download. Millions of iPhone users can explore and buy these applications by a single click, using Apple’s iTunes. In more than one way, App Store is every software developer’s dream. Think about it, the iPhone is one of the fastest growing mobile platforms in the world and the App Store is the only way to legally reach almost all iPhone users. There’s no other way to buy software, so users never doubt if there is some other, better software out there, as far as they’re concerned, if it is not on the store, it doesn’t exist. To use this distribution channel, developers need to register themselves with Apple. Registered iPhone application developers can list their software and decide the price at which they want to sell it to end users. In exchange of 30 per cent of that price, Apple provides developers with services like application hosting, credit card processing, monthly billing, analytics, upgrade facilitation, Microsoft MCITP Certification etc.

In the light of these facts, it is not surprising that there is a mad rush to develop applications for the iPhone platform. To date, there are more than 3000 applications listed in the iPhone App Store and more than 100 million application downloads have taken place. Developers of the best-selling applications, like ‘Tap Tap Revenge’ and ‘Monkey Ball’, have already attained a celebrity status of sorts, not to mention a good payout. For a platform that is less than a year old, this is nothing short of a gold rush.

This is translating into a big time opportunity for the outsourced development of applications. A lot of work is being done in India too. Sunil Goyal, co-founder of Wirkle Technologies, a Gurgaon-based mobile application development firm, says, “We are very excited about the opportunity. Most of our clients have shown an intent to create an application for the iPhone. However, it is very hard to keep up with the demand. It is because of a massive shortage of developers with the requisite skills. We are dealing with this problem by hiring and investing heavily in training existing team members for the iPhone development environment.”

If skill shortage is one issue, then the monetisation of free iPhone applications is another issue, which is attracting a lot of attention. AdMob, a Silicon Valley-based mobile advertisement firm, has started a special initiative to provide advertisements, specifically for the iPhone. Given the richness of the iPhone interface, the advertisements are more interactive and engaging. If initial signs are any indication, then an advertisement on the iPhone ensures a better ROI (return on investment) for advertisers. This can be a huge business opportunity.