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All apps and no play

February 20, 2014
— Courtesy Photo
— Courtesy Photo

Up until a few years ago, developing a world-class mobile game was an expensive proposition and the market was not as crowded as it is today.

Since the past three years or so, a lot of game-developing companies have popped up in Pakistan, some of which are just buying cheap code from the market and re-skinning an existing game, hoping to get popular on distribution platforms such as the App Store and Google Play. They seem to be betting on their marketing skills more than their game development skills.

There is a reason why that might be a good strategy though. With over a million apps on both Google Play and Apple’s App Store already, and despite the huge number of downloads (expected to reach 269 billion by 2017), the primary issue remains discovery.

Assuming products are similar, companies with better marketing skills and consumer reach will inarguably win a higher market share. That, however, doesn’t undermine the need to develop good and innovative applications. If apps are not engaging enough, or not entertaining enough, or do not offer good value to the user, the marketing effort and capital spent on getting those downloads will result in little to no monetisation.

Gaming, however, is just part of the mobile app market.

According to Juniper Research, mobile app spending is expected to hit 75 billion dollars by 2017; gaming, although the single largest contributor, is just 32 per cent of that market. The remaining 51 billion dollars will be spent on non-game apps in which there is no shooting, no racing, no tapping the fish and no candies clashing with the backdrop of music that will put you to sleep. Games also do not constitute the majority among the over one million apps that can be found on both the Google and Apple distribution platforms.

With that in mind, we decided to shine a spotlight on a few Pakistani mobile app developers that are chasing that larger, non-game, mobile app market with innovative or popular products.

Bramerz

Founded back in 2006 and known as one of the leading digital marketing agencies in the country, Bramerz also owns one of the more successful local mobile applications. In 2012, the company collaborated with Ufone, Google and P@SHA to develop and launch a smartphone-based loyalty and retail deals application called Olaround.

Olaround, available on both the iOS and Android platforms (Windows version coming soon), is a location-based application that allows users to discover and explore businesses in their proximity and avail any deals that they may be offering to attract customers. Customers who frequently patronise those businesses get special rewards to retain their loyalty.

Olaround is already at close to 500 locations serving more than 250 local and international brands and businesses in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. The free application has been downloaded by over 80,000 users to date. Bramerz charges a fixed annual subscription from the businesses that come onboard the Olaround platform and until online payment processing becomes widely available, the business model is expected to remain unchanged.

The seed funding for this mobile venture came predominantly from retained earnings of Bramerz’s digital marketing business. A creative barter arrangement with Ufone provided Olaround a lot of airtime on television and significant early market traction. The company says it’s looking to raise the first outside round of funding to take the product to more markets.

SMSall

SMSall is an inspiring story. Originally conceived at LUMS by Dr Umar Saif and one of his students as an SMS-based mass communication platform to coordinate efforts of rescue workers and relief agencies during the 2005 earthquakes, it has persevered through several pivots to emerge as one of the leading mobile messaging, social discovery and networking platforms in the country.

The ambitious entrepreneur at the helm of operations at SMSall passionately describes the company as a leading contender in the race to connect Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘next 5 billion’ with each other through pervasive communication networks. The company has evolved from a group messaging service to an enterprise-focused mobile CRM product, to what is now a platform-neutral and medium-agnostic, social discovery and communication network.

With 7.5 million registered users and 350,000 daily active users, the company continues to grow its network virally while building a rich, interest-based social graph of its users. Monetisation in the mobile messaging space is a challenge, but based on validation from customers like Maria B, Stylo Shoes and Metro Cash ‘N’ Carry, SMSall believes that businesses and brands will pay for properly targeted, high performance, and non-intrusive ads. This is the direction it’s leading its sales efforts, and given that the company is already cash-flow positive after having bootstrapped their growth to date, they seem to be heading in the right direction. Whether the model will scale to the next five billion, or 180 million for that matter, remains to be seen.

SMSall recently announced a strategic partnership agreement with one of the largest media conglomerates in the country. Aside from extensive marketing support the agreement affords from this strategic partner, SMSall believes that the arrangement will be instrumental in taking the company to the next level and help scale its operations towards the realisation of its grand vision.

Arbisoft

Arbisoft is a relative newcomer to the local mobile product development scene. Although the company was founded back in 2007, historically it has been a technology service provider. Last year, however, Arbisoft started building its own mobile product portfolio and gained immediate industry recognition for it. The company won the ‘Best in New Media and Entertainment Applications’ award at the Pakistan Software Houses Association’s (P@SHA) Annual ICT Awards and followed that accolade with a silver medal at the 2013 APICTA Awards held in Hong Kong.

The company jointly owns, with two international collaborators, two mobile products named Scoop Excavator and ParkTAG. The former is a 3D simulator for an earth excavator based on real-world physics, and the latter is a crowd-sourced utility application to help users easily find parking spots.

What really caught my attention though was the company’s first wholly owned product called Intellistats, a utility application bound to make quick friends with all smartphone users and raise eyebrows at the telco service providers.

In the guise of seemingly endless package options, the telcos keep prompting mobile users to switch their packages and incur switching costs without providing them with any historical usage information to make those choices intelligently. That’s where Intellistats comes in.

The application analyses historical usage pattern of making and receiving phone calls, SMS exchanges and mobile internet use, extracts actionable statistics and displays them to the smartphone user through an intuitive, extremely well-designed, graphical user interface. The information can then be used to reliably pick and subscribe to a mobile package that is most cost effective for the user.

Arbisoft products are already on over 40,000 mobile phones and as the company starts formal marketing and adds features to Intellistats that will allow users to actually save money by suggesting the best phone packages for them, this number is expected to rise sharply.

Wrapping up

Although non-game app development companies still lack a flashy exit role model like Gameview Studios, there are several product success stories to inspire new entrants. Older examples like Friends Planet and Jaadu VNC to newer ones like eMumba’s Cricout social network, successful photo editing apps such as Pepper.pk’s PhotoEditor and Master Minds’ Photo Splash FX, and upcoming enterprise mobile apps such as iReady2Sell by DevBatch, have all jointly resulted in millions of downloads and earned several millions of dollars for their developers.

Foreign companies like Rocket Internet also appreciate the potential in the Pakistani market and are pouring millions of dollars into smartphone applications-based local businesses such as Easytaxi and Foodpanda.

Still though, it’s a small fraction of the 51 billion dollars to be spent on app purchases by 2017 and with the democratisation of the internet and location-neutrality of large scale distribution platforms like the App Store and Play Store, Pakistani app developers have as good a chance as any in the world to win a big slice of that pie.

Khurram Zafar is a technology entrepreneur, investor, and Fortune 500 consultant. He teaches Entrepreneurship at Information Technology University of Punjab and is a Board Member at Plan9 technology incubator. He tweets at @kayzafar.