The Middle East’s home-grown app market now really growing, but from a low base

Despite massive smartphone penetration, native app developers in the region need to listen more closely to what locals want

The Middle East has been at the forefront of the smartphone revolution, but a home-grown app market that addresses the specific needs of local customers has been slow to emerge.

If local firms are to build successful mobile apps then they simply must start listening to their users.

According to analysis company VisionMobile, mobile apps will account for 33% of the global app economy (worth $143bn) by the end of 2016, with developers falling over themselves to meet demand. The Middle East is no exception to this trend. 

The desire to capitalise on the opportunity to get closer to customers, as well as exploit the potential of apps as business and productivity tools, is one of the main market drivers, as is the emphasis regional governments are placing on the roll-out of mobile services.

Playing it safe

To date, Middle East users have stuck with a handful of tried and tested international brands, and businesses have been cautious about investing in domestic resources, preferring instead to outsource, to lower costs and contain the risk of creating a new product. However, there are signs of a new wave of native app development emerging.

“The Middle East tended to look to more mature markets to develop on their behalf, but we are witnessing an app developer ecosystem starting to take root,” said Stacy Holland, vice-president, digital experience with UAE telecoms provider Du.

“Local firms are now bringing these skills in-house and at Du, we have already spent a long period of investment, setting up a dedicated user experience team of experts from the Middle East and North Africa, Europe and Asia,” she added. 

Serjios EL-Hage, CEO at app and mobility specialist EMW Middle East, agreed. “Although some businesses are a little behind in understanding how apps can help create opportunities, the region has quickly reacted and many companies have developed, or are in the process of developing, local apps, and not just for the business as a whole, but also specific business lines,” said EL-Hage. 

“Increased customer engagement and the ability to localise the message will help continue the growth in demand for native apps in the region,” he added.

Government influence

Khalil Shadid, founder of ReserveOut, which has launched an app specifically for the restaurant and dining sector, said most businesses still had no direct mobile presence, but this was changing as smartphone penetration rates rocket, particularly in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. 

Some industry watchers see Gulf Cooperating Council (GCC) governments as the strongest market influence in the Middle East.

According to Holland, in the UAE, government emphasis on innovation and the drive to make Dubai the “smartest city in the world” have given local app development a boost, particularly in the public sector.

Vimal Sethi, managing director at IT consultancy Synechron Middle East, agreed: “The move towards smart government has had a huge influence on the growth of the home-grown app market.”

Sethi said consumers in the Middle East have been using apps as tools to access news, social networks and shop online. However, he added that as governments focus on increased mobility in providing services to citizens, the market for locally developed business apps is on the rise.

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The move towards smart government has had a huge influence on the growth of the mobile app market,” added Sethi. “The GCC states are driving the efforts to provide government services on mobile devices, as the region moves towards smart government. Smart initiatives are being rolled out across GCC states, covering government services such as public utilities, police, customs, transport and municipalities.”

“This has encouraged a mobility drive within corporates, and all this paved the way for increased demand for locally developed business apps in the region, a trend that is set to continue.”

“Copy and paste” development

However, Omar Kassim, CEO at online electronics marketplace JadoPado, warned that while the native app market is slowly beginning to take shape, there has been an “unfortunate culture” of  “copy and paste” development, with relatively little thought given to regional needs or nuances. “The ‘agency’ approach to app development has created a quality gap,” he said.

But, he said, the issue is beginning to be addressed by businesses, by hiring their own internal teams that will spend longer on product development to ensure a higher quality outcome.

In a world where business users feel empowered and entitled to make their own choices about mobile devices and apps, this is a major challenge for app developers. 

Ali Hyder, group CEO of Focus Softnet, said the market has also moved from a generic “do everything” approach to app development into a more specific need-based phase.

If corporates are struggling with their app development strategy, it might be cold comfort to know that most mobile projects fail to meet early expectations in terms of timeline, user adoption or return on investment.

An IBM survey of developers and development managers recently revealed that only a third meet the criteria for success, although the challenges are not overwhelming.

Sethi said native and cross-platform development skills are essential if app developers are to succeed in the Middle East. “The integration of mobile apps with legacy systems has been a big challenge for enterprises, and is also a key skill for a [development] partner to have,” he said.

“A diverse understanding of existing systems, and the way they can be integrated with mobile, is a key factor. Apart from this, an understanding of mobile enterprise application platforms (Meaps) is an added advantage,” he added.

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