Apps, apps and more apps

Smart Phones

Over the past year or two, mobile phones have become more than just a gadget to send text messages or make a phone call. Their ubiquity allows the devices to be more than just a phone. You can now use phones to send and receive money and to check your Facebook feed. And this is just the beginning.

I have also witnessed Ugandans use the simple software available on cheaper phones for a variety of other tasks including as a calculator, a notebook and in Owino Market for invoice tracking and managing inventory. The software is not always made directly for these tasks but that has not stopped users from being incredibly inventive.

But since the advent of iPhone in 2007, the growth of mobile apps, applications specifically designed for performing such tasks on a phones, have been booming. Apple launched their App Store in 2008, and since then over three billion apps have been downloaded. Google then launched the Android operating system and later the Android Marketplace. And most recently, Nokia, the most popular mobile phone maker in the world, launched the Ovi Application Store.

Hundreds of thousands of mobile applications for all platforms – some cost a few dollars, others are free – have been developed to perform a variety of tasks from email to scheduling to business accounting to music to video games to allowing your phone to toot like a vuvuzela. Like that last app (we’ve all heard enough of the vuvuzela for a while), most mobile applications built for the iPhone are ephemeral and fun. But apps like Google Maps, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Opera Browser and iTunes are both incredibly popular and useful for a mobile device.

However in order to experience these apps, users must pay hundreds of dollars (over $500 for a new iPhone) for app-able phone. Google announced last month that they have worked with handset makers to develop a $200 Android phone, but this still leaves apps far out of reach for most Ugandans.

Another thing is that most of the apps available for all the platforms use large amounts of broadband. These apps are designed for people in the US or Europe who have fast connections and unlimited data plans. Unfortunately my wallet has been stubbornly keeping me from testing what it would be like to live this app rich, unlimited lifestyle here in Uganda. I have resorted to only turning my data connection on when I – or one of my apps – demand it.

Without a doubt, the iPhone is one of the most beautiful pieces of personal computing ever developed. It is simple, intuitive, syncs seamlessly with your home PC and iTunes and is incredibly powerful. It is hard to find something that this phone cannot do. And with over 200,000 apps available for download, there is something for everyone.

But the phone is not perfect. It is incredibly expensive, tends to not last longer than two years or so before a catastrophic breakdown and only works with Apple sanctioned products.

In other words, as far as apps are concerned, Apple keeps a tight leash on what users of the iPhone can download and use. And the high price and high bandwidth demands of the iPhone – available from Orange Uganda – make it a beautiful but impractical addition to your mobile lifestyle.

Google does not make computers and it does not make mobile phones. But it does make a killer operating system for mobile phones called Android. The Android OS is available on an assortment of phones from makers that include Motorola, HTC and Samsung. Many are available in Uganda but you might have to search a bit deeper down William Street to find one.

The Android marketplace has only a small percentage of apps in comparison to Apple but most of the apps you would actually need are there. It has also chosen to open the platform to other developers, which Apple has not done. This allows for more innovation in the development of Google apps but the marketplace still remains a shadow of the App Store.

An finally there is Nokia’s Ovi Application Store which the company launched in June. Nokia may be late to the game but as usual, their product is impressive. Like Android, you will find most of the apps you need in the Ovi store. Maps – though not yet available for navigation in Uganda – and music and video and news and more are all there.

And unlike Apple and Google, Nokia is partnering with service providers in the region to provide payment through mobile money channels.

For the Ugandan customer, you will have no problem striding into a new mobile lifestyle with any of the three systems. It all depends if you want to look sophisticated (iPhone), cool (Android) or in the know (Nokia).

By Ole Tangen Jr.