Mobile Apps, Anyone?


Companies are increasingly looking at building their brand in different ways. The latest fad in India is the growing use of smart phones and tablets. Before this, the craze was social networking, and companies have developed specific strategies to use social networking to promote their brand. The market for smart phones and tablets was given a boost by Apple, in 2007, with their iPhone and later with the iPad. It led to more manufacturers joining in the fray, and these devices are not restricted to the professional executive. The time taken to release new models in India has also come down. The first iPhone took a year to come to India but the latest iPhone 4S arrived within a few months of its US release. With the market growing, companies have the opportunity to exploit unique features of smart phones and tablets – specifically via mobile applications and the web.

Mobile App versus Mobile Web

Mobile applications (or mobile apps or native apps) are standalone programs that run on a mobile device that permits installation of software. Since these are installed on the device, they are similar to the software installed in computers. A Windows desktop application cannot be installed on a Linux machine unless a Linux version of the same application is available. The software is specific to the underlying platform and the same is the case with mobile apps. Mobile apps are delivered via an app store or via websites for download.

With increased attention on mobile apps, we tend to forget the importance of the mobile website (also called mobile web app or sometimes mobile web). A mobile website is a website optimised for mobile devices. It is an extension of the conventional website. The user just needs the website address to access it and doesn’t need to download anything unlike in a mobile app. The advantage of a mobile website is quite clear – it doesn’t depend on the platform and can be accessed by any device connected to the Internet. The drawback is that it might not be able to take full advantage of the handheld device’s inbuilt features such as GPS, gyroscope, and so on.

Companies usually start out with using the mobile web before graduating to mobile app. Mobile browsers are improving and providing a better user experience with the use of HTML5 standard.

Mobile app uses

Looking at the way mobile apps have progressed in the West can give us an idea of what might catch on in India. A study in the United States, by Flurry, found that users are now spending more time on mobile apps than on the web; the shift occurring in 2011. And drilling down to figure what apps were most popular reveals no surprise – games, social networking and GPS based apps. But that doesn’t mean other apps are not used. Mobile banking apps, travel apps and retail shopping apps are also used frequently.

A few industries, such as media houses, can use mobile apps as an extension of their regular service – The New York Times iPhone app is quite popular. Some industries can use mobile apps to engage customers using customer service applications. Research done by Click Fox, a company focused on customer experience analytics, says more than 70% respondents used customer service apps. Utility companies can certainly tap into this area; wouldn’t it be nice to place an order for your next gas cylinder from a tablet?

Businesses have to assess whether a mobile app is really required or whether a mobile web would be sufficient. Because users will not use a mobile app if all it does is show the list of products that a company sells – the user might as well get that information from the website. A courier company found an interesting way to use its mobile app. FedEx uses a mobile app that permits the sender to upload a video using their Smartphone. FedEx then puts a barcode-type tag on the delivery package, which the receiver can scan using the Smartphone to view the video – deliveries with a personal touch.

Developing mobile applications

Programming for mobile devices is slightly different from traditional programming for computers. The screen size is a lot smaller, the memory available is lower, the platform on mobiles and computers are different, the processing power available is lower and mobile devices have unique features that can be taken advantage of. To complicate matters, there are a variety of platforms – Android (Samsung, Motorola, HTC), Symbian (Nokia, Sony), iOS (Apple), Blackberry OS, Windows Phone, and so on. Android dominates the market, with Symbian and iOS behind. The regular IT department of a company will generally not have skilled programmers for mobile devices, but they can be trained or else the work needs to be outsourced to a specialised player. One of the concerns with outsourcing is application maintenance.

It is costly to develop and maintain multiple versions of the same application for each platform. For reducing costs, it helps to develop the application using a cross platform framework where the application is written only once and the framework will generate multiple versions for each platform. The problem with this is that you will not be able to take advantage of some specific features that are available on each platform. The advantage is cost and the fact that programmers don’t need to worry about the specifics of each platform.

Risks of mobile apps

The ability to install software on a device exposes it to the same risks as in the case of computers. McAfee, an anti-virus company, has said that hackers are now targeting mobile app stores to spread malware on smart phones. Any mobile app that is created has to be careful with the way it stores confidential information because malware targets log-in information, passwords and credit card information that are stored on the phone. With the growing use of smart phones, users are storing sensitive information on their mobile devices. Apps used for making purchases online are the most critical ones, but all mobile app developers need to be careful when they store information on the phone and on the servers. Many a time, the security concern is not because of the device but because of the server that the app connects to. Apps often connect to a server to store data. They are not really standalone. A security breach at the server can lead to leakage of sensitive data.

A case in example is Open Feint, a mobile gaming network. You might not associate a gaming app with security concerns but Open Feint has been sued for collecting personal information that was made available to outsiders without the user’s consent. Open Feint stored the unique identifier of the user’s device along with their browsing history. They also stored details such as the user’s location, Facebook profile, friend’s list, and so on. And all this data was available easily to any person who was searching for it. Although on first glance it might seem that this was because of the mobile app, it really was because the backend wasn’t secure.

It pays for companies to form a mobile strategy based on how they feel they can engage customers via mobile apps – is there any special experience they can provide, is there a way they can strengthen the brand name, a way to increase sales, and so on – though a mobile app might not always be required. And remember that not everyone uses a smartphone, not yet.


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