World in your hands

WINDOWS Gareth van Zyl takes a brief look at mobile applications - especially those geared towards the Middle East market. He also looks at what goes into developing an application.

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By  Gareth Van Zyl Published  September 2, 2009
Going Mobile

You’ve decided that you want to go to a restaurant for dinner but you’re not quite sure where you want to eat. You pull out your handset, and access your Yellow Pages application to search for all the restaurants in your area. After deciding on the restaurant you want to go to, you start making your way there by car, but you get slightly lost. This isn’t a problem though, as you can check your location with the Google Maps application on your phone. But you stumble into another problem: Once you arrive at the restaurant, you need to remember where it is that you’ve parked your car in the maze that is the underground parking lot. For this too; however, you can use an app on your phone that uses GPS to keep track of where your car is.

As shown, mobile apps give end-users the power to have an array of useful information available at their fingertips. It’s a craze that has captivated the mobile world, with numerous mobile phone vendors having jumped on the band-wagon and developed app stores.

The iPhone, of course, has been the pioneer in this field with applications such as iFitness, Chef Application, Loan Shark, Bloomberg, Maps, OmniFocus, Pennies and a game called Star Defense, amongst many others, all available on the iPhone’s iTunes App store. Google Android, an open source mobile operating system compatible on a number of phone brands such as Samsung’s i7500, also has apps such as MyBackup Pro, Power Management, GPS Status, Google SkyMap and Opera Mini.

Blackberry also has a range of applications available such as Brain Challenge 2 (a game for stress management), HRS Hotel Manager (an app that allows you to check the availability of hotel rooms), The Lonely Planet French phrasebook and a MySpace app.

Even Samsung has its Application Store, Developer Forum and Seller site for applications, and LG recently launched its app store in the United Arab Emirates and is looking to expand its reach from Asia into the likes of Africa and Europe. Nokia have been particularly active in the mobile app space with Ovi.com, an application store for numerous Nokia phones while the latest Palm series of phones have an app store as well. And just before you thought there might be a vendor out there who hasn’t jumped on the band-wagon Sony Ericsson too is planning on launching an application store called PlayNow Arena.

Middle East Mobile Apps

There are a lot of mobile applications and app stores out there and this phenomenon has not escaped the Middle East with Qatari-based Television news station Al Jazeera making a news app, and companies such as Nokia and LG having apps geared towards the Holy month of Ramadan.

The New Media team at Al Jazeera has made the Al Jazeera iPhone app, which is available on the app store for US $ 1 and it’s basically a news feed of the latest breaking news on Al Jazeera. It’s broken up into various categories such as YouTube videos, and certain regions’ news such as Africa, Asia and the Americas.

Safdar Mustafa, Head of Mobile Media Unit for New Media at Al Jazeera, has told WINDOWS Middle East that the news broadcaster regards mobile applications as being very important in terms of reaching its audience. This is despite the fact that he says that the take up of mobile apps in the region has been slower compared to elsewhere in the world and the fact that consumers here spend a fraction of their money on apps compared consumers from the rest of the globe.

However, he says that with an increasing number of new mobile operator players coming on to the market in the Middle East, such as Vodafone in Qatar, more people are accessing content online with their mobiles; thus showing promising signs for the mobile app market.

At the moment, the Al Jazeera app is only available to iPhone users, but Mustafa says that they are open to developing apps for other mobile units as long as vendors are willing to jump on board. It’s not only Al Jazeera that has got in on the mobile app development game in the Middle East. Companies such as Nokia have got into application development for the Middle East with their apps geared towards Ramadan.

The apps Nokia have developed for Ramadan include the Quran, Prayer Times, the Zakah Calculator, Hadith books, Hajj and Umrah guides and Mozzaker prayers. Prayer timings and Qibla direction are provided for 1000 cities in 200 countries, along with the ability to add, remove, update and edit any location using the GPS.  The new Zakah Calculator helps Muslims calculate Zakah based on their income.

Chris Braam, Vice President, Sales, Nokia Middle East and Africa, has said, “Last year’s applications were very well received, as we saw over 2.4 million Ramadan applications downloaded"

The Ramadan applications are developed by ASGATech, a Forum Nokia Premium Partner in the Middle East, with all content reviewed and approved by Al Azhar Al Shareef.

ASGATech CEO, Ali Helmy, has said, “We have been developing applications for Nokia since 2006, which has given us an easy way to distribute our mobile applications to millions of consumers. By having our applications on Ovi Store this year, we are able to further extend our reach into the growing mobile applications market in the Middle East."

Apps development

In 2008, a German developer, Armin Heinrich, developed an app called ‘I am Rich’. The app cost US $999 999 dollars and, reportedly, eight customers paid for it before Apple decided to withdraw it from its app store. Users could download a glowing red ‘ruby’ that would appear on the iPhone screen and Heinrich wrote in his app store description that "The red icon on your iPhone or iPod Touch always reminds you (and others when you show it to them) that you were able to afford this ... It's a work of art with no hidden function at all."

This example shows that even the most in-elaborate of apps can potentially make a lot of money. But on a serious note, for developers who want to develop an app that will be useful to mobile phone users, there a number of things to consider.

Firstly, different phones often have different Software Development Kits or SDKs that the developer can download and utilise. These SDKs are then also updated on a regular basis.

Secondly, one can use a variety of programming languages to develop apps, from Java to ASP.net, all dependent upon the environment one works in. If you are a programmer, there are a number of programming languages that are particularly geared towards certain mobile phone brands. The Symbian and Palm OS compatible phones mainly rely upon the developer having a knowledge of C++ whilst the Android, Blackberry and iPhone rely upon a solid knowledge of Java.

You can also develop apps using other ‘simpler’ languages such as HTML, JavaScript and even CSS. Each handset then would have its own unique requirements as well. The iPhone, for instance, requires that you be running a version of Apple and that you understand how to use Apple’s programming language.

The third thing developers need to consider is whether they will go the thin client or fat client route. That is, thin client applications will primarily reside on a server which the user will access via the internet, whilst the fat client applications will primarily reside on the phone itself. Developing apps can potentially set you on the path to riches, but, if it doesn't, it can be your contribution to the diversity of apps out there. Below are a few online resources to get you on your way.

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