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The South African App Market: Where Are We Now?

por Ada Tharp (2018-07-20)


There are more than half a million android apps in the world. The i-Store, which officially garnered more than 25 billion downloads in March this year, offers 5.5 million downloads, with more than 170 000 apps specifically tailored for your iOS. If your head isn't spinning with the variety on offer then I'll hit you with the fact that around 300 000 of those apps were uploaded in the last three years. Talk about an industry developing overnight.

All this has been driven by an ever-increasing level and availability of mobile hardware and stable operating platforms and development tools. Given the proliferation of mobile devices around the world (more than 85 percent of the planet is using them) you might well ask, has South Africa taken advantage of this new outlet for her talent and industry?

The answer, unfortunately, is mixed. South Africa has had some amazing advantages when compared with its peers on the continent. Unfortunately we have a track record of sitting on our laurels. We have managed to drop, or at least fumble, the ball when it comes to issues like youth development, the creation of sustainable alternative energies and the development of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) infrastructure.

So one might well ask are we going to miss the boat on the App boom too? It's not that I'm saying we're completely useless, it's more a case of failing to seize opportunities. South Africa should by right, be one of the strongest players on the continent but let's look at what we have done with our opportunities.

At the turn of this century we had one of the best telecommunications infrastructures on the continent but now our line speeds and data costs are falling far behind the rest of Africa. In 2012 our Internet penetration is less than 14 percent which puts us ahead of the African average of 13.5% but well behind countries like Kenya (25%), Nigeria (29%) or Morocco (49%). We are above average, sure, but here's my point: when you consider our potential, is good enough all we should be aiming for?

Our poor performance when it comes to education and communications infrastructure might be the single biggest stumbling block in this country's development. Certainly it is a major factor in our lagging behind the rest of the world when it comes to taking advantage of the app market. Here we have a profit-generating industry that anyone should be able to enter, anywhere and at any time, and we are choking ourselves with outdated line speeds and exorbitant costs for bandwidth.

Everyone can see how the e-tolling system will be bad for business and commuters. With that in mind would it really surprise anyone to hear that a recent study conducted for the Business Software Alliance placed us 18th out of 24 countries in our readiness for cloud computing? The report cited our low levels of Internet penetration and low levels of information and communications technology as a problem, and also went on to say that there needs to be better planning for the expansion of our high-speed networks (we are currently lagging behind India in this department). Above all we are going to need to make the Web quicker and more affordable if we are going to be able to compete internationally.

With a relatively limited infrastructure and costs that are still prohibitive for many, the penetration of apps is obviously far behind what it should be, but it's not all bad news. While we have a way to go in ensuring that our countrymen and women get into the habit of downloading apps, in corporate terms we're actually not so far behind the curve. As Richard Cheary of Afrozaar Apps puts it, "We definitely do follow countries like the US, South Korea and the EU with regards to general consumer new-media apps, but I believe our corporate and business-to-business app advertising paradigm is not that far behind." Indeed in certain industries like banking, South Africa is a world leader since we are often used to piloting and testing business software and systems.

Banks like FNB also have a strong offering when it comes to banking apps and have seen the benefits that being able to offer something extra to their customers can bring.

On the whole though, we are still struggling to develop a culture of app use for the average South African. We are all familiar with some of the biggies like Facebook, but there remains an untapped market for apps designed for the local market. You've got to ask why more of this sort of app isn't being created. It cannot be said that South Africa is completely lacking in skill or creativity. Indeed the research group, Gartner rated us as one of the top 30 software-developing destinations back in 2008.

The question is what have we done with our potential? Are we letting another opportunity slip by? In 2009 the ITC ranked us first in the sub-categories of ICT security, cyber- and intellectual-property rights' laws and contribution of services to gross domestic product. We came in third overall as an outsourcing destination, which only goes to prove my point that we have the talent and expertise in certain areas, but we are often let down by allowing ourselves to lag in others. This varied level of competence and quality seems to imply that instead of coming up with a cohesive plan for how we will improve our ICT and harness the power of our developers, we are at the mercy of conflicting forces - each trying to look after its own interests with no interest in the development of our nation's industries as a whole.

A case in point, the more recent ICT figures revealed that we ranked 30th out of 46 African countries when it came to our mobile-data rates. No prizes for guessing who is letting the side down here. The bottom line is that mobile-data rates need to fall if we are not going to miss yet another opportunity. The penetration of mobile devices far exceeds our Internet penetration with nearly 80 percent of South Africans possessing a mobile device. As smartphones drop in price, more and more people will be using the Android or iOS. That represents a huge market with great potential if we can get people used to using apps. The first step to achieving this is dropping costs so that they are not beyond the means of the consumer.

You've no doubt noticed that some steps have been taken in this regard and rates are dropping, presuming it's not a case of too little too late. The inevitable question for the business-minded individual would have to be, "How can I get involved in this?"
Local or international 25 billion app downloads sound like a pie you'd want a slice of? If you're not an aspiring developer yourself there is no need to despair (indeed chances are you're going to need a team whatever happens). A good idea can be all you need and there are plenty of companies in the South African market that will help you realise your vision. The chances are that you're not going to replicate the success of Angry Birds overnight, but Richard Cheary's passed on a few tips you might want to bear in mind:

-Build a team with the right levels of experience and skill sets
-Obtain team experience on a number of professional service projects and also put in the time,overtime if necessary, to research and develop existing apps
-Try a few apps yourself to fully understand the device platforms being targeted
-Focus on building a software component base for reusability and future extensions
-Find ways to mature delivery and/or production lines
-Then, have your team agree on a product or platform, and commit to building it in
stages.

This final point can be a bit of a stumbling block. After all do you want to create a web app or an app designed to be native to the device on which it is run? Ideally your app should be able to cope with both scenarios. Certainly you should design any app or website with the restrictions of mobile devices in mind. The varying degrees of penetration between mobile and Internet connections make it clear that you are definitely going to need a mobi site for your business. However, the conflicts and variations between browsers can often be a stumbling block and a native app can often be a way of ensuring that an app works stably and as you want it to.

If you decide to go with a native app then the chances are that you want to go with Android (unless you are offering a product that you deem more suited to the iPhone market). My thinking here comes down to the fact that cost is likely to be one of the biggest factors in the adoption of mobile devices in this country. Most generic bottom-of-the-range smartphones are likely going to be using one version of the Android OS or another, so it makes sense to make sure your app will be stable on Android.

While it is worth noting our weaknesses, it is equally important to acknowledge our strengths. For entrepreneurs, app development represents a vast opportunity and it is one that South Africans, and their counterparts on the rest of the continent, are seizing increasingly. As mobile strategist and AppCircus co-founder, Rudy De Waele recently commented: "Many of the African app developers we met during the AppCircus Africa tour last year were university graduates, but the vast majority have learnt to code via the Internet.

They have great entrepreneurial spirit and drive, but lack the business training and mentors needed to take their apps to the next level." South Africa has talented people who can and will be significant players in the global app market. February of this year saw one of our own app developers, Anne Shongwe elected a finalist in the sixth annual Mobile Premier Awards in Barcelona.

We may have a way to go when it comes to catching up with the rest of the world in developing apps, but it is nice to see that we definitely have people who are leading the way and representing South Africa. Hopefully they will not be let down by a lack of support and vision.