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App in the RSA

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The latest download statistics from the Vodacom App Store reveal much about The South African mobile market and its users, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

As the mobile app markets of the world begin to change how phones are used, South Africans too are embracing the app.

Vodacom revealed this week that their own shiny new App Store ‚ it was launched in September ‚ has already had 429 000 visits, and almost every visit has resulted in a take-away ‚ with 400 000 downloads so far. The apps are a mix of free and paid-for downloads. MTN has launched a pilot app site, called apps@play, but for now all apps are free while they test the concept.

Why should a local operator launch an app store, when the global equivalents, especially the Apple App Store and the Android Marketplace, have more than a billion apps between them?

‚The biggest advantage is that we are able to work with different platforms,‚ says Prins Mhlanga, Vodacom’s Managing Executive: Digital Media. ‚An Android Marketplace can only address Android users, Apple’s App Store can only serve Apple users. We can address all the popular platforms.‚

The result, says Mhlanga, is that the local app store more closely reflects the phones most commonly used for apps. It also highlights the fact that conventional phones, known as feature phones ‚ as opposed to smartphones ‚ are a key market for app developers.

The downloads from the Vodacom App Store provide fascinating insights into the phone lives of heavyweight South African users ‚ those most likely to be early users of an app store.

The phone most often used on the Vodacom App Store so far is indeed a smartphone: the BlackBerry Curve 8520. But the next two are feature phones: the Samsung SGH-E250, and the Vodafone 543 (made by ZTE). They are followed by the Nokia E63 smartphone, the Samsung Star GT-S5233, and another BlackBerry, the new Curve 9300.

These five phones all have two things in common: they are low-cost alternatives to similar but more feature-rich and expensive phones: and they are wildly popular among teenagers and young adults. The E250 was, for a long time, the single most popular phone in the youth market, until it was supplanted by the Curve. But, despite the fact that it is already four years old, it still has enough of a market for Samsung to keep shipping it into South Africa.

The list sheds a bright light on mobile trends in South Africa. Clearly, the youth segment is the most likely to be the early adopters of the apps. And clearly, low cost does not equate to low usage: these are high-end users of semi-low-end phones.

The operating systems or platforms for which apps are downloaded are also revealing: the three most popular local apps are for the ‚store launchers‚ for three different platforms on the app store. That’s no surprise. The surprise is the fact that the most popular of the three is for the Java version of the store. That’s the platform most commonly used on feature phones. BlackBerry is in second place here, followed by Nokia’s Symbian.

In terms of conventional options, the most popular local app is the News24 ap for BlackBerry, beating out MXit for Java and the K53 app for Android, created by local developers Lucky Mobile.

The list of most popular international apps is led by Facebook Chat ‚ for Java. This means that low-end users are embracing Facebook on their phones. The next most popular imported app is Mario55, a clone of the Super Mario Brothers game. Another surprise: it is the BlackBerry version that is most popular.

Ironically, the developer market has not caught onto the popularity of BlackBerry in South Africa. According to Mhlanga, most developers are working in Java and Android. Vodacom has introduced a developer programme, he says, to help software creators navigate the steep learning curve of app development, and to keep them abreast of market trends and demand.

‚Part of the objective of the programme is to make sure all users are looked after in making sure the store is compatible with all handsets.‚

He does not believe the Android obsession among developers is altogether misplaced.

‚Java will be around for quite some time, but I see Android becoming more popular in the next couple of years, BlackBerry is still growing because of their offering and how they are tackling market at the moment.‚

The store hosts more than 160 000 apps, while MTN’s apps@play pilot store carries around 120 000 apps. MTN are being tight-lipped on its performance so far, but the device and platform trends are likely to mirror those of Vodacom. With every month, the number of South Africans picking up the app habit will accelerate and this, too, will become app country.

* Arthur Goldstuck is editor-in-chief of Gadget and heads up World Wide Worx (http://www.worldwideworx.com). Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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