Why Mobile Operators have a crucial role to play in the second wave of “smart” apps

[Just how smart can mobile apps get? Guest author James Parton explains why most apps today are pretty much dumb, just scratching the surface of what could be possible and describes how mobile operators can help power the next-generation of smarter, context aware applications]

The noise level around Apps and App Stores has reached saturation point. Every day a new launch, a new report, or a new statistic hits the newswires.

We have passed the point where there are now more people accessing the internet via a mobile device than via a PC, overall revenue from mobile apps (including ads, payments, and in-app transactions) is expected to grow to $17.5 billion in 2012 from $4.1 billion today, the iTunes store has delivered more than 3 billion downloads, 22 apps are downloaded per second from Nokia’s Ovi store, there are more than 30,000 Apps available in the Android store… you get the idea…

There can be no doubt that the explosion of interest around the App ecosystem brought home just how important mobile will be as a future content delivery channel, typified by the increasing number of Apps being produced by leading brands. No digital marketer worth their salt would now neglect having an app story in their digital marketing plan, even if in all honesty some are not quite sure why!

However, make no mistake that we are still firmly in the realms of a version 1.0 ecosystem. The App retail delivery platforms are still very basic; in fact they have not yet significantly evolved in terms of features and capabilities from the content delivery platforms that were offering mobile games, wallpapers and ringtones at the beginning of the decade.

The Apps themselves are clearly “dumb”. What do I mean by “dumb?” The vast majority of today’s App’s sit on the customer’s handset and have no understanding, or appreciation of its context or the person using it. Yes, increasing numbers of Apps are using location to introduce geographic context, but that is hardly pushing the boundaries of the art of the possible.

To take the App ecosystem to version 2.0, Apps have to become “smart”. I believe this is where Mobile Operators finally have a key role to play in the progression of the App ecosystem.

Of course this role is not a divine right. The Mobile Operators need to go through considerable change in order to be able to contribute effectively. That change is both technological: opening up “smart enablers” to allow developers to easily consume these capabilities, and secondly: culturally – to embrace the independent developer community and relax their traditional command and control philosophy for mutual gain.

So what does a “smart app” look like?
Well consider today’s customer experience. You run an app and it is a one size fits all experience i.e. the app behaves exactly the same way for every one of its users, regardless of who they are, and how they are using it. Imagine a “smart” app that could customise the user experience based on intelligent, real time, information delivered from the Mobile Operator.

Examples of Mobile Operator unique enhancements to the customer experience could include:

  • On the fly customisation of the App UI based on a detailed understanding of the device currently being used. Remember that increasing numbers of customers are SIM swapping. How do you know that a customer using your service on a Monday via an iPhone is now using your service on a Tuesday using the same SIM in a 3G dongle connected to a Netbook?
  • On the fly customisation of content richness based on knowledge of the users  current connection speed (e.g. 2.5g, 3G, WiFi). For example trying to force rich video content to a customer on a slower 2.5G data connection will probably deliver such a poor customer experience they will never use your app again. If you know in real time their connection speed, you can deliver the most appropriate experience.
  • Personalisation of content and configuration of your App UI based on user demographics (gender, age, location, social economic profile, etc)
  • Targeting & profiling of the audience based on segmentation information e.g. travel profile (stationary, commuter, jet-setter), spend segment (>€100 per month, €50-100 per month, €30-50, etc).
  • Micro billing to the customer’s mobile bill or debits from their pre pay balance at VISA like transactions rates.
  • In-App interactivity via messaging or calling
  • Up -selling the customer from a basic service to a premium guaranteed service (for example low ping rate for multiplayer gaming apps).
  • Then for the owner of the App, post usage analytics providing data like who, where, how long their users are consuming their services, and other customers of the Mobile Operator that match their current users profile, who could be targeted by a marketing campaign.

Examples of the enablers that Mobile Operators could deploy include; quality of service, billing, handset information, customer analytics, network traffic analytics, messaging, call management, location, age verification, tariff information. The list can go on and on, and in fact in our own planning sessions we have identified over 50 potential enablers.

This is a more intelligent way of developing not only the App, but also the business opportunity. Via the Network Operators turning their network infrastructure and assets into a plug and play platform, Mobile Operators become vital in the creation process of the second wave of ‘intelligent’ apps that can deliver far richer experiences for users which will drive adoption, longevity, and profitability.

Evangelisation and education on the benefits of creating “smart” Apps is crucial – this won’t just happen by itself. We are at the start of the process, and many companies are only now trying to get to grips with their App 1.0 strategy.

To ensure Mobile Operators both identify and capitalise on the opportunity to become relevant in the App ecosystem, it is vital they adopt an open and transparent approach. Therefore there cannot be enough effort to bring together the various players in the App ecosystem to share thinking, create strategy and influence product roadmaps, and marketing plans.

A great example of this is the Mobile Entertainment Forums Smart Enabler Initiative. I’d strongly recommend you check it out and get involved.

Critically the experiences and enablers I have described here are not commercial reality today. Talking and listening to developers will be essential to ensure that the Mobile Operators invest in the right technology enablers and introduce compelling business models to encourage their adoption.

Of course enablers are just one piece of a complex App ecosystem. There are many other challenges that hinder unlocking the full commercial value of the market place, not least the fragmentation and choices available to developers at the handset Operating System level. However, our approach is the same: dialogue and insight.

That is exactly why O2 Litmus has partnered with VisionMobile to undertake the largest developer research to date. We’re encouraging all mobile developers to participate, and we look forward to sharing the results with you all.

Have your say at visionmobile.com/developers.

I’d welcome your thoughts on both this piece and some key questions it poses:

  • Have you used a Mobile Operator enabler? What was the experience like?
  • What enablers do you need to make your App “smart”?
  • How can we effectively spread this message?

James Parton
Head of O2 Litmus
You should follow me on Twitter at @jamesparton

[James is a Chartered Marketer specialised in Mobile. With an award winning track record of product delivery including twenty five major launches, featuring twenty first to market achievements, including MMS, mobile video, mobile music downloads, the UK DVB-H Broadcast TV trial in 2005, and the ticketing and interactive services supporting The O2 Arena in London. Recognised by Revolution Magazine as one of the “Future 50”, James is a regular industry speaker, panellist, judge, blogger, and has lectured in Marketing and New Product Development at The University of Oxford Faculty of Continuing Education and Reading University.]

[Survey] Calling all developers: Making sense of a fragmented world

[Calling all developers: VisionMobile launches the most ambitious developer research to date. We also take the opportunity to look back at our past developer research to present some of the most interesting findings]

We ‘ve recently launched what is probably the most ambitious mobile developer research to date – benchmarking the developer experience across 400+ developers, all 8 major platforms (iPhone, Android, Symbian, Java ME, RIM, Windows Mobile, Flash Lite and mobile web) and the entire developer journey.

The project has been sponsored by Telefonica so that the research findings can be made freely available and widely publicized.

The most ambitious mobile developer research to date
Our research will take a closer look at developer needs and expectations by examining all aspects of the development life cycle, from design to delivery. More specifically, we’ll be looking at platform selection, platform features & application design, code development, tools &debugging, developer support, go-to-market and application marketing – as well as covering hot topics like open source and the future of network operators.

We ‘ve spent a long time in planning, peer reviewing and logistics of the research. Our methodology includes 200 one-on-one developer interviews over the phone in addition to an online survey and an in-depth hands-on platform benchmarks; we ‘ve designed this three-pronged methodology to combine quality, consistency and depth of analysis in what is the most ambitious mobile developer research to date.

Calling all developers
Are you a mobile developer? Register at visionmobile.com/developers to participate in our research via 30 minute one-on-one interviews.

We ‘re giving away a free MWC pass, a 500 EUR Amazon voucher and 20 wallcharts of the Mobile Industry Atlas which will be drawn out to participants. But do hurry, as the free MWC pass is only valid until Friday 5 February.

We have been excited in launching this project, as we believe this research will become a seminal point of reference for developer research, and provide new insights into every aspect of mobile application development. Plus – thanks to the generous sponsorship of Telefonica, the results will be freely available and widely disseminated in Q2 as part of the report Developer Economics 2010 and Beyond.

Cross-platform insights from our earlier survey
In view of our latest research, we’d like to share some noteworthy findings from our earlier developer research project.

Our research carried out during the first 8 months of 2008 included an online survey; we polled over 350 mobile developers across 60 countries and 5 platforms: S60, Android, Java, Windows and Linux.

We ‘ll share a small subset of 6 questions out of 40+ we polled during that survey – in what will probably be a small appetizer prior to the main course, i.e. our Developer Economics 2010 report coming in Q2 2010.

One of the most important questions we asked was also one of the most naive ones: What is your favourite mobile OS or platform?

Quite understandably, the S60 users and professionals went for S60 or Symbian in general, Android fans went for Android and so on. However, this is only half of the story.The Java group was the least ‘faithful’ to its platform, with only 62% of respondents citing Java as their favourite platform. The highest percentage of ‘faithful’ developers were those working with Linux, with 92%.  Linux was also the most popular platform, stealing away 3% of S60 and Java users and 7% of Android and Windows users. The next graph shows preferences for platforms, based on platform selected for survey. Note that all graphs are normalized to a total of 100 developers.

What is your favourite platform?

The next logical question after the ‘what’ is the ‘why’. Why is this your favourite OS or platform?

The answer on most people’s lips was ‘ease of use’, followed by ‘rich APIs’. ‘Faster to program with’ and ‘better dev tools’ were also popular answers, while financial and self-promotion reasons were almost non-existent.

How the world has changed in just under two years; post iPhone App Store, monetization and addressable market are much higher up in the agenda of mobile application developers.

Why do you prefer this platform or OS?

The most important factor in selecting an OS or platform was ‘feature-rich APIs’, while the least important was ‘responsive and accessible technical support’. It’s worth noting that Android developers seem to go for rich APIs, having the highest percentage, but complain about the lack of documentation (esp. in those early days of Android).

Most important factors in an OS or platform

In terms of the IDE, the vast majority of respondents believed theirs was lacking in terms of the UI editor for apps – which was particularly painful for Android and Java at that time. A well-integrated toolchain was another major pain point in the IDE for most developers.

What does the IDE lack?

It’s love or hate time! We’ll start with what developers love in their platforms. ‘Easy to use the APIs’ was the most popular answer, followed closely by ‘access to all APIs’. Linux and Android users were particularly impressed with access to all APIs, a sentiment not at all shared by their S60 colleagues. Windows users mostly went for ‘productivity due to the tools and environment’, while Java users preferred the ease of use of the APIs.

What do developers love about their platform?

What do developers hate about their platform? Well, most of them seemed peeved with the difficulties they faced in reaching the market; a reason that is mostly relevant to the way the market is set up (or was setup – in the pre- iPhone App Store era), rather than a fault in the platform. The main inherent fault most people found was the disparity between emulator and device performance, a view shared by all platform users except Android. Android users were also pleased with the production cost of the apps, as well as the support their platform offered. Unsurprisingly, less than half of the developers found something bad to say about their platform.

What do developers hate about their platform?

Of course the world of mobile development has gone through a sea of changes in the last two years. Apple introduced a single platform to target 50+ million handsets. GetJar, Apple and others paved the developer-to-consumer route to market. Google led the open source wave with the majority of the device platform published under a non-copyleft license. Adobe went back to square one introducing the Flash and Air runtimes to replace its fragmented Flash Lite installed base. And Palm left a thriving Palm OS developer community die a slow death. Mobile application development has gone through a roller-coaster history, with even more twists and turns behind the next corner.

So – stay tuned. The Developer Economics 2010 will tread new ground in understanding mobile developers, across platforms, regions and across the entire developer journey – and thanks to Telefonica’s sponsorship – we ‘ll be publishing the insights from the research far and wide.

Join in or spread the word!

– Matos