How to: Build an App Ecosystem

This article appeared in the February, 2014 edition of Venture.

Mobile apps obviously hold huge business potential, but how do we get Jordan to make more?

By Max Marin

In the last decade, the Middle East has embraced smartphones, especially in terms of social media. According to GO-Gulf web design company, 88 percent of Internet users in the region use social media on a daily basis; including 58 million Facebookers, 6.5 million tweeters, and 5.8 million LinkedIn accounts. But where social media platforms blossom, other forms of mobile expansion have taken a backseat. What’s next for Jordan’s telecom and tech industry?

Last month, several of Jordan’s telecommunication leaders gathered to attend a conference held by AppCircus, an international showcase for the world’s leading apps and their developers. The conference marked one of the first app-focused gatherings in which telecommunication companies and app developers could brainstorm about the future of Jordan’s digital development. Disagreements abounded, most of them slight. Some maintained that the biggest problem is that people in the Arab world, despite their high usage of social networks, are still hesitant to engage in online business platforms. Others argued that major corporations are not putting enough emphasis on online purchasing power, and that developers haven’t taken enough initiative on this front.

Still, there was a general consensus about what needs to be done: educate people about the benefit of an app community. There’s no right or wrong way to go about this, but AppCircus has put forth an outline that has been successful in other cities across the globe. It’s called the “Eco Paradigm,” and it consists of a few basic steps: create competitions and challenges for application developers, use corporations as platforms, and create social opportunities for local consumers. Currently, Jordan doesn’t have a cooperative strategy on how to implement these goals, so all progress must be made from the bottom up. Luckily, it seemed that the telecom and tech leaders who attended the AppCircus conference were optimistic about joining forces for the sake of growth.

The first step towards an app ecosystem is building supply (the apps themselves), but that requires a community effort. Jordan has plenty of creative and ambitious app developers looking for new venues to flex their skills, but what can be done to incentivize these individuals into a group effort? This is where corporations should get involved. Big business leaders can use the appeal of their brand to host large-scale competitions, which will then lead to an “initiation process.” Hack-a-thons, group projects, scenario problem solving—these events will serve as conventions for Jordan’s developing talent, and together they can ideally create ideas with a wide consumer interest.

Out of this initiation period an idea will be born. Then comes the incubation period, in which the concept can grow into a fully functional app within four months time. But for a Jordanian app ecosystem to thrive, services must be aimed locally. People tend to talk about the success of gaming apps on the international level, but rarely look in depth at the success of local apps in their respective markets. AppCircus gave examples of successful apps that have emerged from other MENA region cities as a result of such incubation periods. At one of their sponsored events in Cairo, AppCircus asked developers to solve some aspects of the public transport issue, a prominent social issue for their city. One of the ideas that came out of the session was an application to help eradicate sexual harassment on public transit. No, the app doesn’t solve the crises of Cairo’s public transit as a whole, but it does give the citizens of Cairo the power to act and make it a safer place for women.

“Apps are about changing behavior,” Carlos Ferreiro, CEO of AppCircus, said at the conference. “They aren’t about building an infrastructure. You won’t get a metro system out of an app. But you will get people to think.”

A large part of any app’s success relies on its social merit, and the rest lies in effective marketing. There are thousands of brilliant apps that simply haven’t sold due to an absent reputation. That’s where the corporate sponsorship comes in. Apps that have a big backing will garner more attention no matter what, and it doesn’t hurt for the apps to help target local issues. “If the app targets a social issue,” Ferreiro added, “the media will be interested.”

China’s market moves faster than any other country in terms of its app ecosystem, with an estimated 500 million smartphone users and hundreds of local app stores. Although these users present a big international market, western developers have begun working with third party app companies in China in order to capitalize on local interests beyond the standard gaming and chat-based applications. If Jordan wants to get ahead of the curve and build its own app ecosystem, the time to start strategy building is now.