At first glance, South Africa’s highly fragmented mobile environment can seem a daunting prospect for any business wanting to develop its own mobile services or applications.
After all, applications (apps) have become one of the most direct and profitable means of reaching and interacting with customers. However, with so many platforms, operating systems (OSes) and devices to choose from, the options could initially seem overwhelming.
Fortunately, the extent of South Africa’s mobile fragmentation doesn’t mean there is any less opportunity for success. To make headway it is important to look beyond the fragmentation that exists and understand your target market.
The first thing the research tells us is just how complex the fragmentation is, particularly when compared to more developed economies. We can chart fragmentation along six lines: channel, platforms and OS versions, manufacturers, physical devices, app stores and browsers.
Mobile data communications are split among several different delivery channels, apps being just one.
The SMS channel is well used in South Africa but is expensive, and the complexity of SMS increases dramatically once you try to address foreign markets, like the U.S., where completely different SMS behaviours and regulations apply. SMS is best used to address the broader South African consumer market.
USSD (text prompts) is also popular in South Africa because it works on all GSM enabled devices and is relatively fast. USSD is not particularly pretty and is incompatible with some smartphone platforms, so is best used to address the lower end of the local consumer market.
Another notable split is platforms and OS versions. While overseas trends point at smartphone domination, with Android and iOS leading the market, in South Africa ‘advanced’ or ‘feature’ phones still rule the roost, with Nokia and Samsung-made devices dominating the sales charts.
Smartphones in South Africa are more often than not Blackberry, but even then overall smartphone penetration is only roughly 20 percent. The dominant Android and iOS platforms, with their respective OSes, occupy just a small fraction of that market. OSes are even more fragmented when their different released versions are considered, and the high number of different physical devices sold also has an impact, because the same OS can look and behave differently depending on the device it is installed on!
Another little-known fact is that there are as many as 71 different app stores worldwide. Even though a much smaller number of these are directly available to South Africans, an application distribution strategy needs to take this into consideration.
So clearly critical choices need to be made early in the development cycle when a business decides which apps to pursue.
Ready, aim, develop
Choosing what to develop, for which platform and OS, and for which device, becomes much easier when you know who you’re developing for. If you know your target market, you can very quickly assess which devices and platforms your business should be targeting.
The good news is that there’s plenty of reliable local demographic data available to help you correlate your mobile strategy with the types of mobile platforms your target market uses.
For example, the vast majority of ‘mom and pop’ small business users in South Africa still use feature phones rather than smartphones, and Nokia’s Symbian OS is the most widely adopted platform in this demographic. If your business is extending its services to this market, chances are you will want to focus your development strategy on feature phones first, with an eye on smartphone development as the market evolves.
On the other hand, if your business caters mainly to the higher-end white collar demographic – law firms, banks, creative industries, and so on – your investment would be better made in the niche smartphone segment dominated by Blackberry, iOS and Android devices.
Also consider that for business applications where the application will be used for a particular group of employees, intermediaries, brokers, field workers and so on, the possibility of issuing or specifying a particular platform becomes viable. This reduces development cost but also introduces other complexities, like device management and administration.
The cross-platform conundrum
When it comes to app development there still seems to be a stigma attached to cross-platform development tools, many of which are available license-free. While it’s true that these tools limit developers when it comes to coding more complex, processor-intensive and OS-specific apps like games, the vast majority of apps can be coded around a simple front-end with the majority of processing done on a backend server.
The point here is that cross-platform tools are the way to go if your aim is to save time and money by developing once and adapting your app to multiple platforms – feature phones included.
One important and oft-overlooked caveat is that regardless of how you develop your apps (or mobile websites), they should be tailored to the look, feel and usage paradigm of each platform they’ll be used on. This is particularly critical when developing iOS apps, given Apple’s (and the Apple App Store’s) strict human interface guidelines that prohibit any non-compliant app. In fact, when developing a cross-platform solution that includes an iOS version, my advice is to develop the iOS app first and adapt the other versions to follow.
But even for non-Apple development, it’s important to keep in mind how your target users will benefit from what you’re giving them. Nokia feature phone users expect their apps (or mobile sites) to look and respond the same way as any other native app, as much as Android or Blackberry users are accustomed to a particular way of interacting with their apps.
In closing, if you know who you’re developing for, the effect of the complex fragmentation inherent to South Africa’s mobile communications market becomes much reduced. There are some excellent (albeit proprietary) cross-platform tools available locally that allow you to cater for the whole gamut of mobile platforms, from ubiquitous feature phones to the small but growing smartphone market. And if you keep your apps light and simple on the front-end, you can save significant cost and development time by offloading most of the processing to your office or Cloud-bound servers.
Just remember to give your users the experience they’re after, deliver rich content that adds value to their business (and consequently to yours), and chances are your investment will hit the mark.