The apps-creation craze may be thoroughly embedded in the U.S. tech scene, but, on the other side of the world, young would-be entrepreneurs are not only paying attention, they’re becoming rivals.
Tasnim Al Khaldi, a recent graduate from Al Ain University in Abu Dhabi, is leaving college with both a degree and an app under her arm. After taking a crash course in app creation, she and a classmate Ruba Awadallah finalized iMonitor -- an app that can send text message warnings to parents when their teens drive faster than posted speed limits -- and submitted it to the Nokia App University Challenge in the United Arab Emirates.
“I had no past experience in mobile application development or in the tools that I used to develop the app,” says Al Khaldi, 21, who studied software engineering in a school.
So why the sudden burst of inspiration?
The promise of prize money, along with mentorship opportunities or research assistance for starters.
Mobile phone makers such as Research in Motion and Samsung as well as telecom operators like Etisalat in the UAE and Saudi Telecom Company are trying to grow the app ecosystem across the Middle East and Africa. Nokia has been organizing innovation summits in Africa, while also launching incubators like mLabs in Egypt, Kenya and South Africa to spur new app-development projects.
“It’s really about focusing on stimulating innovation at the base,” says Jussi Hinkkanen, vice president of corporate relations and business environment at Nokia in the Middle East and Africa.
The incentives can prove alluring for any burgeoning app creator, particularly at a time when youth employment across the Middle East and Africa has stoked frustration and fuelled riots. Al Khaldi and her partner Awadallah, who came in second place together, won $3,000 cash and new smartphones. Nabeel Kassim, who helped develop the winning restaurant-finding app called BonAppetit, walked away with $5,000 in cash and is slated to attend a study tour to the Nokia Research Center in Finland next month.
Although the prizes certainly seem generous, the business opportunities for revenue-hungry handset manufacturers and telecom operators are that much greater. “Mobile makers promote apps [because] they want people to continue upgrading their devices to higher specs,” says David Ashford, an e-business consultant who used to run an app development fund in the UAE.
“Telcos promote apps [because] they want people to consume more paid-for data traffic,” he says. “The Middle East market is particularly attractive because demand outstrips supply: There are very few Arabic apps and yet the Middle East has a massive Arabic-speaking population which is very young and one of the fastest growing populations in the world.”
The smart phone penetration rate in the Middle East and Africa is also only half that of mature markets like Europe and the U.S., but it’s growing much more rapidly, says Thomas Kuruvilla, managing director of Arthur D. Little Middle East, a Dubai-based consultancy that covers the telecommunications industry.
For college students, the money is surely helpful, but so is the credibility that comes from participating in the competitions. After winning top prize in Nokia’s app challenge, Kassim, a 21-year-old electrical engineering student from the American University of Sharjah in the UAE, started a summer internship with the Finnish handset maker’s developer experience team. “I believe that this will give me a leading edge in the current job market,” he says.
Plus, Kassim hopes he’ll expand his reach and better inform future efforts. “We need to familiarize ourselves with the current platforms and think of ways to attract developers to our preferred platform, Windows Phone.”
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Still, there are plenty of hurdles for young coders eager to create apps for the Middle East and Africa. Little funding exists, and neither domestic telecom regulators nor venture-capital firms have provided much in financial support, Kuruvilla argues. There is also a general lack of technical expertise to help app developers meet global benchmarks.
Yet Kuruvilla has some quick tips for young developers looking to go global. For starters, participate in world-wide, online app development forums to help in exchanging knowledge and expertise. Also, he adds, develop partnerships with device manufacturers like Apple, Research in Motion and operating-system providers such as Google. “This will help in both marketing and technical support,” Kuruvilla says.
If you could make and app for another country, which would you choose and why? Let us know in the comments section.
Neil Parmar's work has been published in The Wall Street Journal, SmartMoney Magazine, The Huffington Post and Psychology Today, and he's been interviewed on CNN, ABC News, Fox News and radio shows in the U.S. and U.A.E. In 2012, former President Bill Clinton announced that Neil was among one of three winning teams, out of 4,000 applicants, who won the Hult Global Case Challenge and $1 million to help SolarAid, Habitat for Humanity and One Laptop per Child. Most recently, Neil was an assistant business editor and writer for The National, a newspaper based in the Middle East.