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Apps – an opportunity too good to miss

Mark Mason talks to Argent, The Financial Services Forum about the mobile challenge.Something remarkable happened in the IT world in Q4 2010: the sales of smartphones in the UK outstripped PCs. Whilst this was not exactly a fanfare moment, it drew a line in the sand and pointed us to a business future very different to the one we recognise today.

Mark Mason talks to Argent, The Financial Services Forum about the mobile challenge.

Something remarkable happened in the IT world in Q4 2010: the sales of smartphones in the UK outstripped PCs. Whilst this was not exactly a fanfare moment, it drew a line in the sand and pointed us to a business future very different to the one we recognise today.

The rapid growth of smartphones has prompted many financial service companies to evaluate how they’ll begin to integrate apps into their marketing plans. Research suggests that half of mobiles are now smartphones with Internet access – and within 18 months that will have increased by 50%.
Some financial service organisations have forged ahead, with varying success. NatWest’s banking app launch in November 2009 signalled a new generation of apps to communicate with financial customers. It generated more downloads of the iPhone app in the first day than all of their previous wap based customers since that service launched. That success caused their registration servers to crash, generating some criticism. But, despite the apparently limited functionality on launch, nearly two years on, it’s still No. 2 in the app charts and continues to have regular improvements in functionality.
It’s clear that consumers are now using smartphones and tablets to check their bank accounts and credit card statements as well as move money from one account to another. For higher net-worth individuals there is a strong desire to use these devices much as they would a laptop, but they want to do it on the fly, in the taxi, on the train.
Driven by this demand – 17 million tablet sales in 2010 are expected to grow to 57 million this year and 171 million next – we’ve had several discussions at Mubaloo with a number of wealth management companies about arming their financial planners with iPads. The companies want to use the devices to assess risk profiles, set up portfolios and deliver contracts. Time will tell whether the FSA will allow contracts to be signed via these devices in the future.
Another area of app development experience for us is share dealing and fund management. The spread betting companies were the first to see the opportunity but now many FS companies are looking to extend access to their brands through smartphones. And, overall, they have a lot to gain from the growth of smartphones and tablets. Many are also beginning to realise how apps will be able to facilitate the day-to-day operation of a number of their internal business processes as well as their marketing.
In the last couple of years we’ve worked with several large organisations developing a variety of apps which work across different parts of their enterprise to improve internal communication, collaboration, project management, business process improvement and, of course, marketing.
A significant decision that many company boards will also have to make this year is whether to support the myriad of mobile devices in the market, such as iPhone, Android, BlackBerry and Microsoft Phone 7, or stick to one particular platform across the whole company. This would mean many employees may have to double up on their devices; one mobile for private use, one for business.
There are currently four major platforms to consider: Apple’s iOS (for the iPhone & iPad), Google’s Android, Microsoft and Nokia (or Mokia, as the alliance has been dubbed) and BlackBerry. Each have their pros and cons and market positions, and the battle for dominance still has a few years to run. Mubaloo develop on all platforms but the majority of our apps are developed for the iPhone, iPad and Android platforms. Whilst BlackBerry is significant in the corporate marketplace, many of these devices are locked to stop users downloading apps onto them.
Another issue is security. Secure, scalable hosting is important for many apps, protecting the integrity of the data and also enabling the service to adapt to varying levels of demand. Many FS apps rely heavily on specific data, sometimes at a user level, that requires retrieval from a web server. In this instance, a web service API (Application Programming Interface) is used to let the mobile applications access the data. Where individual-level data is used, Mubaloo typically recommends that services are deployed behind a secure HTTPS tunnel and rely on session-based authentication achieved through the login.
For apps that will be used by employees across the enterprise it is also possible to place apps onto a separate operating platform that can be controlled by the IT department, this means if an employee leaves the company, the corporate apps can be removed from their devices.
One very hot topic is the native app experience (an app that resides on the smartphone) compared to a mobile web app (that resides on the internet): both have merit for different requirements. Many companies choose native app because they want fully immersive apps that make use of the phone’s hardware features (such as GPS, camera, accelerometer) whilst a web app or mobile website can be beneficial for standard solutions requiring a cost-effective multiplatform rollout. A number of solutions sit between these two options, drawing in the appropriate capabilities from both native and web code – these can be downloaded from the app stores in the same way as a native app.
As this is such a subjective issue which depends on several different factors, it is important to have an understanding of the relative pros and cons of each route:
Pure Native Apps
These still reflect the majority of apps in the app store, where optimised interface design, offline functionality, integration, speed and security are all recognised as benefits. However, given the range of native programming languages for the various platforms, this means re-writing code for each platform. The variation in guidelines and device capabilities can also mean re-designing platform specific features such as buttons and page layouts. For this reason, native is not always the cheapest option but is widely viewed as the glossiest for user experience. For companies with strong brand equity, Mubaloo would always recommend developing native apps as the UX (user experience) of a web app can undermine the brand.
Hybrid Apps
There are various approaches for producing web apps that attempt to emulate a native solution, presenting a user interface that offers familiarity to users. Javascript frameworks are available to simulate the look and feel of a native application, so within the app, the user can be unaware of stepping between native and web screens. The time and effort spent in making these effects look and perform exactly as a user would expect can unfortunately outweigh the perceived simplicity.
Cross Compiler Apps
A high-level cross compiler solution can appear to be an attractive one; write once and run on many platforms. Appcelerator’s Titanium, Ansca Mobile’s Corona, MoSync and others have all appeared on the mobile app development market with the aim of trying to produce software that can cater for such a fragmented market. However, the breadth in handset capabilities can mean adapting to the lowest common denominator to avoid complex testing across devices.
Web Apps
Creating a mobile website for your business that is suitable to be viewed in a mobile browser is often crucial in the current cross platform environment. Pure Web Apps are often viewed as an extension to an existing online offering, whereas apps have the potential to evolve the role and experience offered by the mobile device. With time, and the increase in bandwidths, it is anticipated that web solutions will align more closely to the native experience but this requires a mind shift among the consumer as well as the development community.
Clearly, many financial service organisations have a great deal to benefit from developing a mobile app strategy. The growth of smartphones and tablets, in and out of the organisation, is redefining the way FS businesses can communicate with their clients, suppliers and employees. Emerging FS brands, looking for a foothold into new markets, will be the early adopters of these new devices, and they will benefit from the new audiences they attract. The financial industry will never be the same again.
As published in Argent magazine, Summer 2011 issue 36

 

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