LAURA O’BRIEN takes a look at the current successes of the mobile app business and how both developers and brands are set to gain.
It seems that, for every aspect of life, there’s an app that has it covered. The mobile app has become part and parcel of the smartphone experience.
While software on mobile devices has been available for many years, it took Apple’s creation of the App Store in 2008 to make it a must-have experience for modern phones.
"For some, it has happened quite quickly, for others, it has been a long road," says Adam Leach, principal analyst at Ovum.
"If you consider that downloading apps has been available on smartphones for over 10 years, then it has taken quite a while for the public acceptance of this."
This acceptance has made a huge impact. In 2009 alone, according to research from Ovum, 2.69 billion apps were downloaded. Apple’s iOS apps experienced 969 million downloads, with Google’s mobile OS Android following at 203 million downloads. Analysts expect this to grow to a massive 15.2 billion downloads in total by 2013. Considering these figures, how ingrained have apps been in recent times? And what are the challenges facing app development in the next few years?
One factor that has contributed to the rise of the app is consumers embracing the smartphone. Research by Return2Sender has found that, in Ireland, one-fifth of the adult population owns a smartphone, with that trend set to grow further.
"In the minds of consumers, downloading apps is a key part of the smartphone proposition and has also, in the past year or 18 months, changed buying behaviour," says Leach.
"Buying decisions of a mobile phone was based on the physical design but now the apps culture has flipped that and people are looking at what software will interest them," he says.
Indeed, the range of apps available is huge. There are apps for cooking, navigating, music, travelling, sport, socialising and, well, just about every aspect of life. Making such practical information available on a portable, connected device has gained enormous appeal.
There are huge opportunities for developers looking to get their ideas out there. Redwind Software is one Irish software development studio that has made gains from this. Established in 2008, the company specialises in iOS development and has engaged with webOS, Android and Windows Phone 7.
Redwind Software was responsible for creating the most downloaded movie trivia app on the Apple App Store, Movie Challenge Lite, and since then has created apps for big companies, including Heineken.
"My friend and I had looked at all of the apps and didn’t think they were very good. We figured we’d give it a go and make one ourselves," says Conor Winders, chief technology officer at Redwind Software, speaking about how they got started.
"It did pretty well and we released a couple more and suddenly a lot of companies came to us looking to have apps developed.
"It got to the point where we left our jobs to concentrate on making apps full time," he says.
The growth of the apps industry has created a career for Winders and he feels that it could hold a lot of opportunities for other developers.
"If you have a good app that’s moderately successful you could live off it no problem, and that’s very exciting for people in the tech industry.
"For people like me, where I was contracting and working full time for other companies, the idea of being able to support myself on a piece of software I created wasn’t a possibility before apps came along."
He believes that many app developers can make money through brands looking to move into this mobile market.
"It’s similar to how everyone felt they needed a website a few years ago, but with apps it’s a bit different because it’s more interactive and it’s in your pocket all the time," says Winders.
Leach believes that brands see this as an opportunity to monetise content, which was not possible through the more open nature of the web.
"A lot of apps are free, but there are a big proportion of those that aren’t free," he says.
"And that proportion is changing. I think more people in the ecosystem – from device manufacturers to content owners – are seeing apps as a way to monetise content that doesn’t exist in the open web."
However, Winders feels that brands should be looking to apps for marketing purposes, as opposed to earning revenue.
"Big brands are not in [the app industry] to make money themselves, they’re in it for brand awareness," he says.
"A lot of these companies don’t need to make money out of apps and they’re foolish if they think they’re going to."
Winders also emphasises the need for branded apps to have solid content in it. Consumers won’t download an app from a big company for the sake of it. However, if the content it is providing is fun or useful and happens to be branded by the company, then it can be a worthy addition to their smartphones.
App industry challenges
There are still many challenges within the app industry. Leach notes that the sheer quantity of content can make it difficult for developers to get their offerings seen.
"For brands, once you get into the apps business, it’s a very crowded marketplace.
"It’s very difficult to get your app noticed and onto the bestsellers list. It’s kind of like producing a hit single, that’s the mentality of producing an app," he says.
Emerging web technologies could also prove to be a challenge for the industry. As they become more uniform, companies may look towards creating one source of content for numerous platforms.
"Brands now are not just looking at mobile, they’re looking at multiple channels. They’ve got to think of a channel that works across multiple screens, how it works on mobile, the web, the PC," explains Leach.
"The big challenges to the app industry are the evolving web standards, such as HTML5, and more proprietary standards, like Flash 10.1, that are going to provide app-like features but in a horizontal way using standard technology.
"HTML5 is going to bring offline capabilities and mobile optimised sites without delivering a separate application," he says.
However, with the apps industry establishing itself as a highly lucrative area, then perhaps it can differentiate itself from web content and set itself apart as a means of communicating ideas for a long time to come.
"There’s obviously still going to be websites, but the experience of an app is so much richer and so much slicker," says Winders.
"I think pretty much everything is going to move that way in the digital world."