Mobile applications: A test of ap(p)titude

Published: November 9, 2014
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Pakistan’s mobile applications industry driven by profits but lacks innovation.

Pakistan’s mobile applications industry driven by profits but lacks innovation.

Pakistan’s mobile applications industry driven by profits but lacks innovation. Pakistan’s mobile applications industry is driven by profits but lacks innovation. DESIGN: ESSA MALIK AND MOHSIN ALAM

With the global mobile applications (apps) market expected to be worth $25 billion by 2015 — according to a report published by MarketsandMarkets, a global market research and consulting company — everyone, from independent developers and software houses to telecommunication (telecoms) giants, is hard at work to secure their share of the fully-baked pie.

Amid growing demand and increasing competition, many are chasing high-margin outsourcing contracts in developing countries such Pakistan. With an abundance of skilled but cheap labour to offer, the country is rapidly emerging as one of the leading IT outsourcing destinations of the world.

Although mobile apps have been around since the late 90s, the increasing penetration of smartphones in the country — nearly seven to eight million smartphones according to a recent research conducted by a local telecom for its marketing strategy — has made their presence felt more deeply. “The number of smartphones has exceeded the number of computers in the country and this change has come about in the past five years,” says Asad Memon, director operations at Creative Chaos, a high-end custom software development company in Karachi with over 14 years of experience.

It is also the burgeoning utility of smartphones — surpassing that of laptops — which has accounted for the explosive growth of mobile apps. For example, the smartphone’s additional features, such as the orientation sensor (built-in compass) and cell phone triangulation (which collects data to trace the approximate location of a cell phone), assist most apps, including Google maps, to do ingenious things. “The utility of these apps has started making a lot of sense to people,” he highlights, adding that even niche brands have capitalised on the feature to directly reach out to target audiences by advertising through mobile apps. As a result, it has attracted more developers into the technology ecosystem to meet the growing demand.

Asad Memon, director operations at Creative Chaos, traces the trajectory of the mobile apps industry. PHOTO: ARIF SOOMRO

A popular outsourcing destination

When it comes to the global market, Pakistan plays its part as a mobile app developer. “Gora sochta hai, desi karta hai,” says Memon, summarising how foreign clients conceptualise the app and leave Pakistani developers to simply follow directions. Since the average rate charged by an iPhone app developer in the US ranges between $50 and $60 per hour, or more, depending on the brand and the complexity of the app, a cheaper solution is to outsource it to countries that quote the lowest price. Despite India being a much cheaper alternative, their issues with quality-control make Pakistan the next best alternative. “What sets Pakistan apart is the costing and the relationship of trust that has been established by delivering quality apps on time, depending on the company [developing the app],” says Memon. A basic app developed by a local software house can cost anywhere between Rs400,000 to Rs10 million, while the more sophisticated ones can go up to Rs20 million, depending on the company’s profile. Time difference is an additional advantage for Pakistan. “By the time we wake up, we are ready to incorporate changes based on the feedback we get,” he says. In certain cases, a team of 140 developers is dedicated to look after a single foreign client.

Senior app developers at Creative Chaos. PHOTO: ARIF SOOMRO

Pakistan develops a wide range of apps, including everything from the most-used messaging apps to social networking, games, entertainment, business and finance, navigation and utility apps, such as budgeting and data backing. In addition to software houses, an active community of mostly self-taught freelance app developers is also bidding for projects listed on global online platforms, such as oDesk, Elance, Guru and Freelancer. Many have even made a fortune in the process, including the Karachi-based coder Muhammad Harris, who collaborated with a US designer to develop a WordPress theme called Avada after kick-starting his career as a freelancer online. The duo has today accumulated over a million US dollars through sales of their theme. “But [most] Pakistani freelancers are not as dedicated as their counterparts from other countries,” says Sikandar Saeed, an active online freelancer. “They make Rs100,000 from a single project and sit idle for a month or two… If they start planning, their earnings would multiply,” he says, adding that it takes nearly 15 to 20 days to make a ‘good’ app, which includes five days for testing. Similar to software houses, however, freelancers too must follow the client’s strict directives and deliver the app on time to be rehired for future projects.

The local landscape

Since local resources are being used to meet the demands of foreign clients, innovation at home is sparse and sporadic. In an effort to fill the void, telecom companies, such as Zong and Telenor, have stepped forward to uncover local talent and to spur app-making for the local market. After receiving an overwhelming response with 480 registrations, Telenor’s Apportunity contest is now in its fourth consecutive year. “When we went from Edge to 3G, we saw that app-making can be expanded upon and new avenues for local developers can be created,” says Farooq Niaz, former manager corporate communications for Telenor. “When you have high-speed internet, you would like to use apps,” he adds. This comes as no surprise, as better apps will automatically translate into a higher demand for their newly-acquired, costly 3G technology. At the 2014 Apportunity awards ceremony in Karachi last month, app developers converged from different cities to discuss their concepts — from a query app for cooks to a rip-off of 9GAG, where memes can be uploaded — and collect their prizes. The first prize went to Immad Imtiaz and his team for designing a utility app that acts as a hearing aid when the device is connected to a Bluetooth or headphones. “My friend (with a hearing disability) was the inspiration behind this app, and he was the basic benefactor as well. In order to create an app you need to have a test subject, so we tested the app on him and then went to a Peshawar hospital that treats hearing loss where we tested it on a 100 patients,” he says, adding that the app can save people from spending $6,000 (approximately Rs616,500) on a hearing aid in the US. But while some have taken initiative and attempted to solve a problem, many have taken the easy route and replicated existing global apps that may not necessarily resonate with local consumers.

An increasing number of women can be seen working at Creative Chaos. PHOTO: ARIF SOOMRO

Despite a few success stories, such as the EatOye and PakWheels mobile apps, the absence of innovation in the local market is painfully evident. “Originality in games is [also] dying, if not already dead… Don’t be surprised if the next big hit is The Amazing ‘Super’ Spider Man,” states Babar Ahmed, chief executive officer of Mindstorm Studios in Lahore which has designed a multitude of popular games, including Mafia Farm, War Inc. and Cricket Revolution.

With a youthful team of boys and noticeably fewer girls, the company conceptualises and develops games that are published on stores and generate revenue directly from end users across the globe. Memon elaborates further that in comparison to foreign clients, local ones expect companies to do all the thinking. He cites the example of a Faisalabad-based customer who called him to place an order for a mobile app similar to WhatsApp and Facebook. “He said he was in a hurry so I should ‘quickly’ calculate the cost and time it would take to make the two apps,” he says. But making an app, unfortunately, is not that simple. “Candy Crush was backed by research conducted by psychologists who carried out focus group sessions to study the reaction of people to situations,” he says, stressing on the importance of research before investing millions in developing an app.

Users of mobile apps worldwide by region. SOURCE: PORTIO RESEARCH (MARCH 2013) VIA MOBITHINKING

Sky ‘can’ be the limit

The mobile app industry is growing in triple digit numbers the world over and offers great promise to countries who invest in it wisely. With Pakistan’s current lack of foresight, however, its chances of being a market leader for apps seems highly unlikely. “Most of the companies that develop apps in Pakistan are operating at over 100% capacity. The issue is, therefore, supply-side. We don’t have enough quality graduates to go around,” says Zia Imran, the former managing director for Pakistan Software Export Board (PSEB) which aims to multiply Pakistan’s export of IT products and services.

He explains how the skill for the craft is mostly acquired through on-the-job training which reflects on the lack of contribution from academia. Apart from the Karachi Institute of Technology and Entrepreneurship and a few other institutes with specialised programmes, there is a lack of IT institutes that offer specialised training to prospective developers.

The young team of Mindstorm Studios in Lahore that has designed a multitude of popular games, including Mafia Farm, War Inc. and Cricket Revolution. PHOTO: MINDSTORM STUDIOS

During his tenure at the PSEB, Imran secured a $200,000 grant for Pakistan under a project named mLab. The aim was to establish a centre for mobile apps development in Pakistan that would encourage collaboration between universities, professionals, designers and programmers. “The first tranche of money was disbursed, but then I left PSEB due to the expiry of my contract. No MD was appointed till a few months back and this project never saw the light of the day,” he shares. Despite identifying a crucial hold-up in development, PSEB was unable to resolve the problem of a fragmented and pocketed local ecosystem. “There are probably people making really cool [apps] right now in Rawalpindi for all we know, but we’ll never meet them and they’ll never meet us,” says Ahmed.

Inside Mindstorm Studios a colourful ambiance stimulates creative thinking. PHOTO: MINDSTORM STUDIOS

It’s, however, not all bad news for Pakistan assures Asim Shahryar Husain, the current managing director for PSEB, adding that certain measures have been taken to promote the industry. In 2011, PSEB developed the first portal for IT companies in Pakistan (it.org.pk) — a repository of IT companies to connect local/international clients with developers. This year it plans to exhibit at relevant international IT exhibitions and organise delegations to strategically important markets such as the Middle East, North Africa, Europe and North America. “Companies have done well in emerging areas like mobile phone software, gaming and animation,” says Husain. He adds that compared to 2004, when there were only a handful of IT companies doing annual business worth $10 million, currently there are two companies that have exceeded the $30 million mark.

But while millions of dollars may be well within the reach of some developers, not all apps get space on a user’s mobile screen. To lure users to download an app and keep coming back requires more mind than money, and for Pakistani app enthusiasts the sooner they learn this lesson, the further they will go.

Dilaira Dubash is a senior subeditor on The Express Tribune magazine desk. She tweets @DilairaM

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, November 9th, 2014.

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Reader Comments (1)

  • Pakistani-Khi
    Nov 13, 2014 - 1:37PM

    Well done ET, that’s the news giving good courage to us, and reflecting true image of our talent to the world.

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