The potential of apps

Matthew de Gale

‘I think it will be a while yet before a significant proportion of phones will be able to accept the widespread use of apps. But apps are certainly reaching rural communities already.’

Are many people in ACP countries using mobile apps yet?
I can only really address the situation in southern and east Africa where we do most of our work. Aside from the fairly small urban elite who use smart- and higher-end feature phones, there are only a few applications that people use widely, usually those that come pre-installed on the phone. There are a few cases where the desire for the app is so significant that people go to the trouble of sharing it via Bluetooth, for example. But there is very limited access to online app stores, like those we associate with smartphones such as the iPhone, that are in significant use in developing countries.

So it is very difficult to get apps onto phones. For any of our projects where we think an app might be appropriate, we've realised that we need access to the phone itself – either pre-installing on phones that we distribute, or having face-to-face contact to install the app onto people’s existing phones. Obviously, neither method works well for a large-scale project. We also then face the problem of adapting an app to many different handsets, which only very few app developers have managed to solve.

Many apps are text-based and based on European languages. Can that present problems to users in ACP countries?
The phones themselves operate in a language that is foreign to many people, and many common features require some literacy, but that doesn’t seem to be a barrier to people using them. There have even been a number of development projects using SMS in several languages, including vernacular languages, but people often respond better to the messages sent in English. It might be that people have accepted that the language of text messaging is a highly adapted form of English or French or whatever. I don’t think that, when we’re talking about apps, literacy and language even come into the top five problems. Only when apps – or some variant of apps as we understand them – have a much wider distribution, are we likely to start seeing this as a major problem.

What are the main problems with apps?
Apart from distribution and appropriate handset availability issues already mentioned, I'd say that affordability and access to data services are probably the biggest problems. If you have an app on your phone that regularly needs to draw information from a remote service, the cost of that data transfer is very significant, and is more than most people could afford. And because it is often happening in the background, it is hard for people to control those costs. This has been noted as a key problem for the lower-cost smartphones, like those becoming available in east Africa at the moment. When these phones are switched on they are constantly downloading and uploading information, and that data transfer is very expensive for the user. There are ways round this as network providers make cheaper data transfer options available.

Another problem is that many cell phone networks are not yet ready for large numbers of people using data services. For some of our training projects, we’ve had to spend the first few hours just training people on how to configure phones to accept data. The situation is improving, more networks are getting better at auto-configuring data services, but it can still be a barrier – preventing people from using apps.

In your experience, what kinds of apps are most people using?
Social networking apps, and instant messaging in particular, are proving to be very popular. Some services, such as MXit in South Africa, have managed to solve the problems of distribution and have designed the service for thousands of types of handsets. The major benefit of these services is the low cost. Instant messaging is much cheaper than voice calls or sending an SMS.

Unconnected apps are also very popular. These are apps that come with the phone and don’t rely on data transfer over the network. Many people use photo, music and calendar applications, for example, and although their use for development is not immediately obvious, these apps have brought the technology to people who never previously had it.

Are apps just a passing trend until more people have access to the web on cell phones?
I think it will be a while yet before a significant proportion of phones will be able to accept the widespread use of apps. But apps are certainly reaching rural communities already. Many functions previously delivered by village telecentres can now be done on a cell phone. With fewer setup and running costs. A phone requires a lot less electricity, for example. The phone, therefore, can be used to extend the reach of basic ICT services.

Those services could also be delivered, at some point in the future, via the mobile web rather than an app. The problem is that there are still rural communities without any coverage at all, so the mobile web would be of no use to anyone living in those areas – there is no ability to use those services directly off a phone.

On-phone apps can retain functionality that does not require a constant network connection. For example, we use the Open Data Kit for monitoring and evaluation surveys and that works very well offline. You can gather 50 or 100 surveys, then go to a main road where there is network coverage and upload the data with no loss of information.

I think though, by the time the mobile web surpasses phone-specific apps, it will be difficult to distinguish between the two. At least some functions of a mobile web becoming available directly from the handset. Hopefully, this will allow offline functionality while not requiring a full app installation.

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Matthew de Gale is programme manager, Mobiles4Agriculture Services, at SANGONeT ( www.ngopulse.org)

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Related resources

Open Data Kit
ODK is a suite of tools to help organisations collect and aggregate data on Android cell phones.
http://code.google.com/p/opendatakit/

17 December 2010

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