The application of local innovation

From Arabic apps to phone-based programmes that help retailers in the Middle East, there is more focus on localising mobile offerings. Smartphone makers and companies in this space discuss emerging trends as Mobile World Congress kicks off.

Vsitors pass the Samsung Electronics Co. Galaxy S II trade stand at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2011 in Barcelona, Spain, on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011. Galaxy Tab 10.1. The Mobile World Congress takes place at Fira de Barcelona conference center Feb. 14-17. Photographer: Denis Doyle/Bloomberg *** Local Caption ***  804614.jpg
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Sales reps in a furniture store in Kuwait carry smartphones to help customers check pricing, inventory and ordering information that may be saved online.

SAP, the global business software company behind the programme, is also working with cosmetics shops and grocery store chains elsewhere in the world to test mobile apps that can alert shoppers via their phones about discounts and special offers as they browse the aisles.

Some warehouses are implementing similar sales and productivity apps for workers with iPhones and BlackBerrys, and SAP is pushing these kinds of services into this region.

"We are in talks in the Middle East with companies where we can provide more 'knowledge-workers experiences' on their mobile device," says Klaus Boeckle, the vice president and head of consumer industries for SAP across Europe, Middle East and Africa.

SAP is just one of the many companies set to attend the Mobile World Congress, an annual event that begins tomorrow in Barcelona. The focus of the show will be on the current and future state of mobile phone technology, as the global handset market is set to grow to US$314.4 billion (Dh1.15 trillion) by 2015.

As smartphones become more popular, particularly in the Middle East, they are projected to account for more than three-quarters of the global handset revenue, or $258.9bn, according to a report released last year by the research firm MarketsandMarkets.

"One of the dominant trends that we can see in regions like the Middle East is smartphone users moving from being a minority to a majority of consumers," says Dai Shengwei, the president of Huawei Device in the Middle East, a mobile subsidiary of the global technology company Huawei, which will be also be exhibiting at the Mobile World Congress.

"That transition - matched with faster networks and more developed mobile apps - is going to inspire some huge shifts in the industry," Mr Shengwei says.

Part of the shift is also attributable to the growing amount of digital data downloaded on to phones. Most people in the UAE tend to use their devices to network with friends on social media sites, or access email, videos on YouTube, music and games. A little more than one-fifth of residents in the Emirates access the internet from their mobiles, according to data from the market research firm TNS Mena.

"That number might seem low but it's running up at [about] 20 per cent each year," says Steve Hamilton-Clark, the chief executive of TNS Mena.

"Behavioural trends are changing," he adds. "When you're on the bus, at the airport, waiting for the doctor or an appointment - there's just tons of downtime that can now be filled through mobile technology that couldn't before."

As a captivated audience grows, more device manufacturers and companies with stakes in the mobile space say they are tailoring some of their offerings to markets within this region.

Nokia, another exhibitor at Mobile World Congress, says it is the only company in the UAE and Saudi Arabia that provides direct-billing right through mobiles tied to major carriers such as Etisalat and du for customers who tap into its app store. The number of downloads from the phone manufacturer's mobile shop in the Middle East increased by more than 280 per cent last year, Nokia says.

"Nokia is currently working with many Arabic app developers, contributing to over 1,800 [apps and] Arabic content published in the store," says Vithesh Reddy, Nokia general manager for lower Gulf.

Samsung Electronics, a rival mobile maker, has also been encouraging developers to create more apps for this part of the world.

The company released its Galaxy S II smartphone in the UAE last year and recently reported a 40 per cent year-on-year increase in sales of its mobile communication devices within the Gulf during its last quarter.

Samsung has developed some customised apps for government institutions and policy departments within the Middle East and Africa (MEA). More locally relevant apps for residents in the UAE are also appearing in the Samsung Apps shop.

"You'll find many of these applications related to UAE, regarding culture, restaurants, some social activities - and we keep looking for partners," says Ashraf Fawakherji, the general manager for the telecommunications group at Samsung in the Gulf. "Regionally, when I talk about MEA, most of the top downloads are happening in UAE and Kuwait," he adds.

But while smartphone customers in the region may be finding more Arabic apps and those that are more relevant to the Arab world, many may still have to wait for handsets to prove popular elsewhere before they make their way into the local market.

Nokia's Lumia 900 smartphone, which won an award as the best phone at the Consumer Electronics Show last month, is set to launch in the US next month. Yet it has held back on announcing a release date for this region until the interface on the phone supports Arabic.

"We have not announced a specific date for the arrival of Lumia to the region and we are currently working closely with all stakeholders to ensure that consumers will receive the best user experience when we launch," says Mr Reddy.

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