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Goldstuck on Gadgets

You can’t bank on it

Absa and Investec both finally launched banking apps in the last two weeks and both have taken a narrow view of the market, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Two major banks have finally come out of labour and given birth to mobile apps to complete the South African family of financial apps. Both Absa and Investec showed off their long-awaited apps to the world in the last twe weeks, joining FNB, Standard Bank and Nedbank in the nursery of 21st century banking technology.

The proudest parents this week were the members of the Absa team who had climbed into bed with their, err, parent company, Barclays, to produce an app with clear African credentials.

Adrian Vermooten, head of digital channels at Absa, says it will be rolled out across Africa, customized for the needs of local banks. More important, though, is the ability it gives users to send money or airtime, from their bank accounts, to other users. To facilitate this function, which will no doubt have great appeal on a mobile money-oriented continent, the app is integrated with the phone book on the device, so that recipients can easily be identified and selected.

It also supports both consumer and business customers, meaning a company can give numerous people access to the app while controlling what each user can access in the app. It also supports both English and Afrikaans, and can be adapted to other languages.

All functions, says Vermooten, are designed in such a way that they can be activated in two clicks.

So far, so apt.

But just when you think this baby is running before it walks, it turns out that it is still in the incubator: it only runs on Android and Apple devices.

Consider this: the smartphone market is currently dominated by Blackberry, with around 45% market share. Nokia’s Symbian, though fading fast, still holds about 30%. Android has quadrupled in the past two years, from 5% to 20%, but is still trailing in third place. The iPhone is at the bottom of the South African pile, with a mere 5% share of the smartphone market.

The mantra for developers of apps aimed at a broad smartphone user base should be: ‚”BlackBerry first‚”. However, developers enjoy developing for iPhone first, because it is both easier and sexier. It is therefore quicker to persuade developers to produce the app, and quicker to have it produced. You can have a near-instant pregnancy, with little labour pains.

The old BlackBerry 7 operating system, which powers most of the devices in South Africa, is regarded as ugly and ungainly by developers, and not the kind you want to show off in public.

Of course, they would look silly avoiding it altogether. So, like nervous teenagers, they make all kinds of excuses before they finally hold hands in public. Eventually, they get within kissing distance. And, like the courtship, the resultant pregnancy tends to be longer than typical for other operating systems.

Bear in mind, however, that Absa launched their app no less than 21 months after the first South African banking app was born to FNB. And these 21 months witnessed the biggest boom in BlackBerry takeup in Africa yet.

Vermooten has given an assurance that the BlackBerry version will be out in the next eight weeks, which provides a useful guide to how much longer one remains in labour with a BlackBerry app than with iOS or Android.

Over at Investec, the developer daddies and mommies are so proud of the head of their new baby an app made only for iPads that they cannot yet give a clear picture of when the rest will be delivered.

With its private clients base of wealthier customers, it is the one bank that can probably get away with claiming that its typical customer does own a 10‚” iPad. However, tablets have always allowed users to conduct online banking on the device particularly on the bigger iPads.

The irony is that the banking app is far more user-friendly and slick than the bank’s web-based option. The website is a real old-timer, in desperate need of a visit to the rejuvenation fountain.

Says Lyndon Subroyen, Chief Information Officer of Investec Wealth and Investment, who is also driving the digital programme for Investec: ‚”We already have a roadmap of further developments, including an app for Android tablets, smartphones, as well as innovation in traditional online banking.‚”

BlackBerry is missing entirely from the picture. The further irony is that older users in South Africa’s upper-income segments tend to be as loyal to BlackBerry as are the youth who still underpin its presence here.

Which only goes to prove, not all the money in the world can produce a baby that everyone will find beautiful.

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

* Do banking apps deliver a full banking experience? Liron Segev rates and ranks the functionality of the big four South African banks as they go mobile.

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