Prakash Patel, CEO of digital agency Prezence

MOBILE phones have become far more than devices to make and receive calls or text messages. Thanks to apps (applications) the mobile phone is being described as a “veritable Swiss army knife capable of seemingly anything”, says Prakash Patel, CEO of digital agency Prezence.

In 2008, Apple launched the first mobile apps store and since then more than 50-billion apps have been downloaded. The apps store, which turned five years this week, has become a key element of Apple’s mobile ecosystem.

The most popular apps are for games, entertainment and education. According to research, games comprise the largest category of apps on sale at most of the major app stores. They account for 17% of apps at Apple’s App Store and 15% of the apps in Google Play, according to Portio Research.

The company is also forecasting that global mobile app users will jump from 1.2-billion last year to 4.4-billion in 2017.

Mr Patel says in 2008, when then Apple boss Steve Jobs announced the launch of Apple’s App Store, very few people besides the visionary himself, realised just what game-changers apps, and the app store itself, were going to be.

“Half a decade later our mobile phones are far more than devices to make calls or receive text messages,” he says.

Apps have changed the way people communicate and interact. It has also revolutionised how companies market themselves to consumers and have opened new revenue streams for software developers and small start-ups who have been able to build thriving businesses off the Apple platform.

Last year, a study by Comscore found more people used apps on their phones than browsed the web online. “It’s hard to deny the fact that apps are the lifeblood of the digital revolution,” says Mr Patel.

While the first wave of apps was mainly focusing on consumers, analysts expect a boom in more enterprise-focused apps, and apps that can be used on both a mobile device and a laptop.

Mr Patel believes both consumers and businesses have only “scratched the surface” of what apps are capable of.

“I think we’re on the cusp of a new apps revolution where apps are no longer only for entertainment or marketing purposes, but also for making internal business functions easier and more streamlined,” he says.

Today, both globally and locally, organisations are not leveraging the full potential of mobility, says Mr Patel.

In a global study by information and technology services and business consultancy firm CapGemini, it was found that only 8% of companies are using mobile technologies to transform their customer experience, and 14% for operational experiences.

Mr Patel says apps are on the verge of being used to streamline business functions and this is the next phase of “App Enterprise”.

In 2008, nobody had any idea how consumer apps would change our lives. “Today, just how enterprise apps can be harnessed to make business life simpler is only constrained by our imaginations,” says Mr Patel.

Arthur Goldstuck, MD of World Wide Worx, says there is a gap in the apps market for the app that can be used on both mobile devices and laptop computers.

“Right now, tablets are for apps, and computers are for applications (heavyweight programs with extensive functionality).

“Most people only need the functionality of an app, and I can see the app becoming the dominant form of computing very quickly,” says Mr Goldstuck.

“This will mean tremendous opportunity for the development of apps that are specific to the production and utility roles played by PCs and notebooks,” he says.

As the apps market grows, so is the opportunity for software developers to make money out of the apps business. According to reports Apple had paid out more than $10bn to developers.

While app store sales were minimal in South Africa in the first four years due to limitations on apps open for purchasing from here, the sales are surging. “If we conservatively assume that every iPad user buys only one app every three months, that still means a good few million apps a year,” he says.

Mr Patel says a basic but adequate app can cost a ball-park figure of between R250,000 and R500,000. But he says the return on investments on developing the app more than justifies the costs if the development and marketing are done right.

Given the rise in smartphone adoption, apps will continue to be one of the key drivers of smartphone and data growth.

In South Africa, falling data prices and the introduction of low-end, smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy Pocket, mean that businesses increasingly need to look to apps if they want to stay in contact with their consumers and audience, says Mr Patel.

This article was first published in the 12 July 2013 edition of Business Day and posted online here