This article was written by David Wood and published on the Symbian corporate website in November 2005
Insight 3: Compound interest: Getting more than you expected from your smartphone
Smartphones are more than “top of the range” mobile phones. By virtue of their programmability, smartphones open the door to all sorts of unexpected bonus items. In some cases, users pay extra fees for these additional items. But to an extent that may surprise you, some high quality add-ons are available for no additional charge. As I’ll explain below, this highlights some important aspects of the phenomenal growth dynamics of the smartphone industry.
For example, consider the “Metro” application that’s available from http://nanika.net/metro . This is a free guide to transport systems in cities around the world. It provides a startling amount of useful information. To see this for yourself, download from the website onto your PC the zip file that matches your phone type (S60 or UIQ, for example). Extract the SIS file from the zip, and use your own favourite method to copy it onto your phone and install it there. (You could use the PC Suite software for your phone, or an Infrared or Bluetooth message to send the SIS file directly to the phone.) Once you start the application, you’ll have the chance to choose the city – such as London (with info for 720 locations), New York (938 locations), Paris (1534), or Tokyo (1813). Data for more than 300 cities is available, though to save disk space, details for only five are installed by default. Once you’ve chosen the city, you can specify the start and end points for a route – for example, how to travel from Heathrow airport to the ExCeL exhibition centre in the London docklands. Almost immediately, “Metro” calculates and displays a choice of two routes – one for the shortest journey (estimated at 74 minutes) and one with the fewest changes of line. It’s an extremely handy tool to have in your pocket, as you are travelling around a city.
One strong point of “Metro” is the community self-help spirit it engenders. Users around the world who notice mistakes or updates in bus, train, or ferry lines send in details to the authors of Metro. For example, Metro credits no fewer than 33 people for providing the transport data for London. This community spirit is in turn encouraged by the fact that no charge is levied for the application. People benefit from the application, and take pleasure from helping others benefit as well.
A broadly similar kind of community spirit lies behind the provision of free “reader” applications with copies of religious holy books, such as the Bible or Koran. With such an application on their smartphone, users can use any convenient moment during the day to search for and read scriptural verses. The electronic brain of the smartphone makes it easy to pinpoint half-remembered verses.
For a different kind of example, consider the “QBubbleMP” game available from http://qbubblemp.liebrand.co.uk/ . This is a smartphone version of a classic addictive game that goes by names like “Bust-a-Move” or “Frozen-Bubble” on desktop computers: under time pressure, users have to aim bubbles so that three or more of the same colour come into contact, in which case they will disappear. You have to clear all the bubbles before you run out of playing space. Once again, the first advantage of the application is that it travels with you, on your smartphone, wherever you go. This means you can fill in quiet time by trying to reach the next level in the game. You’ll need a combination of strategic thinking, careful observation, targeting skill, and perseverance! But that’s only the beginning.
- Once you’ve had some practice with the “single player” version of the game, you can start playing the “multi player” version, which involves real-time interaction with other players. The game stops being a solitary pursuit, and acquires a social dimension. (The “MP” in “QBubbleMP” refers to “multi player”.) Bubbles popped by your opponents on their screens appear on your screen, making your task harder. The interaction happens wirelessly, using the communications capabilities of the smartphone. Your opponents could well be on the opposite side of the planet. The players with the best results are shown in a “high scores” table
- If you’d like a different kind of involvement, and you have some knowledge of software development, you can download the source code for this game, from the SourceForge open source repository. You can look at the code, to learn from its techniques, or you can even make changes, and then submit your changes back into SourceForge, for others to benefit. This is similar to the way that users of “Metro” send in updates to the transport data for cities, but with a greater scope for altering or improving the application.
Developers have a range of motivations for making their applications freely available in this way, and for contributing data and code to community efforts:
- Some developers have little thought of earning revenues from an application, but write applications as experiments, or for training purposes; having finished the exercise, they think that there’s at least a chance that the outcome might be of interest or use to a wider community
- Some developers gain a personal buzz from seeing the community response to their work
- A well written smartphone application can serve as an advertisement and a calling card – it boosts the online reputation of the author, and is something that can attract the attention of prospective employers or clients
- A free application on a smartphone can help to boost the value of a service that the user already knows and pays for (directly or indirectly), such as a TV channel subscription or membership in a particular online gaming community
- A free version of an application can lead a proportion of users to want to upgrade to another version, with greater capabilities, for which a charge does apply.
As an example of the last point, consider the “MobHappy” RSS reader application. This can be downloaded direct onto your smartphone from http://mh.mwap.at (note that this web address is one you type into the browser on your phone rather than on your PC). An RSS reader is a convenient method for keeping in touch with breaking news: instead of users having to visit a series of different websites, the application collects together small digests (headlines) of news from various source, and makes it easy for users to click on items of interest to fetch extra information. There’s no charge for the MobHappy reader itself – though your phone subscription will (of course) need to cover the costs of any data you download.
MobHappy comes configured with a fixed set of 14 information sources (known as “RSS feeds”) that cover breaking news and analysis in the mobile communications space. As such, I personally find it a highly valuable application: it’s a convenient way for me to keep up with the latest events in the smartphone industry. However, once users have become accustomed to the idea of reading RSS feeds on their smartphones, they may well decide they’d like additional features, such as control over the precise set of RSS feeds. These extra features are available for a fee of $19.95. See http://freerangeinc.com/ .
The free software that I’ve mentioned in this article is only the tip of an iceberg:
- You can find many other examples, from sites such as http://www.handango.com
- The free applications overlap in scope with applications that do cost money – and which may provide additional features, quality, performance and/or support.
The term “iceberg” is appropriate because it’s much larger than most people think. Most people who buy smartphones have only a dim appreciation of the extent of add-on software that is available for their phones. In fact, not only is this “iceberg” large (Symbian is aware of more than 5000 different applications, as listed on various commercial websites), but it’s growing rapidly. The reasons for this rapid growth hark back to some of the factors listed earlier, on the subject of developer motivation:
- The larger the installed base of phones, the greater the interest people have in writing applications that run on these phones (the Symbian OS installed base reached almost 48 million phones at the end of Q3 2005)
- The richer the underlying operating system, and the greater the range of tools that are available to assist developers, the easier it is for careful developers to achieve stunning results with their mobile applications.
As more users become aware of the power of these add-on applications, sales of smartphones will grow still higher – in turn further strengthening the factors leading developers to write and improve applications for smartphones. It’s like a kind of compound interest – a small additional investment goes a long way.