The Application of Talent

Before starting at Catchy 3 weeks ago, I last worked in mobile 11 years ago, at a time when we were wowed by the sophistication of the Nokia 3210.

The world has changed a bit since then.

Smartphones, and in particular the iPhone, have fundamentally altered the way we interact with others, and the world around us. Whether it’s accessing emails from anywhere, connecting with friends and strangers through images, 140 characters, or video, or buying pretty much anything at the touch of a single button, for better or worse the last decade has seen a sea-change in the use of mobile phones.

Our best technical, creative, and marketing brains are dedicated to the pursuit of monetisation. Should our new app be paid for? Or should it be free, but carry in-app advertising? Or should it be free, and have no advertising, but instead have an in-app currency in the forms of jewels, credits, notes? Decision, decisions…

This is all well and good, and a completely valid way to earn a living. We would be foolish to think that our future economy doesn’t rely on these brilliant people making digital, and in particular mobile, succeed.

But… The ocean of apps is becoming increasingly murky. In the US, it takes 80,000 downloads a day to make it into the top 10 downloads on the App Store. You need 25,000 downloads a day just to make it into the top 50 downloaded apps – and if you’re not in the top 50, you might as well not bother.

We may be very close to saturation point, and if we are, where do those brilliant aforementioned brains turn next? Well, how about apps that could make a genuine difference between life and death? Apps with a real purpose, designed to fundamentally improve the lives of their users, rather than just make #firstworldproblems disappear, once slight niggle at a time. Apps for Good is a brilliant and commendable start, and the wider app development community should take note.

For example, it’s estimated that 34 million people are currently living with HIV/AIDS worldwide. Most of them need to maintain a complicated regimen of medication to keep their illness in check – how useful would an app be that reminded them which tablets to take, and when. And translated the medical names of the tablets into easily identifiable characteristics. A tool that allowed producers to connect, and directly swap their output for others’ surplus on terms that both parties agree could save a lot of time and trouble travelling to another place that’s inconvenient for both, to carry out the exact same transaction.  Finally, an app that showed the nearest source of nutrition – whether that’s a food bank, a Red Cross drop, or a clean well.

None of these are exclusively necessary to developing nations either. In this ‘age of austerity’, with the most savage cuts to the welfare state for decades,  I suspect publishers might find just as great a need for their apps at home as abroad.

Of course, an app’s all well and good, but without a handset you’re a bit scuppered. Here’s a thought to ponder – in the first weekend of trading, Apple sold 5 million iPhone 5s. Some of those 5 million people will have given their ‘old’ handsets to children, wives, friends. But just as many will have put their iPhone 4, no-longer-fashionable HTC, or slightly scratched Samsung away in a draw to gather dust. For the sake of argument, and completely unscientifically, say half of the phones that were in use the day before the iPhone 5 was released are no longer being used. Now imagine the power those 2.5 million handsets could hold, with just one of the imagined apps above running on them.

Whoever makes that happen might not be able to monetise their app. But they certainly would be a richer person for it.

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