Guest Post: Building platforms, not apps, is Kenya’s future

The mobile revolution has taken hold in Kenya and everyone is waiting for the next big thing. To the majority of mobile developers, however, the problem is deciding what mobile platform to develop on from a choice of platforms such as Android, iOS, Blackberry, Symbian (now defunct) or JavaME (formerly j2me), writes Ngugi Gikonyo, founder and CEO of 6ix Degrees, a backup system for mobile phones.

Making a solution is what matters, the language to use is simply a tool. That said, it’s regrettable that developers tend to focus on simply making an app and hoping that it will be the next big thing. The developers need to shift focus on making the platforms.

What’s the difference? This can be illustrated using the example of M-Pesa, probably the most unique and popular Kenyan invention since matatus.

A lot has been said about M-Pesa and lessons and inspirations that can be drawn from one of Kenya’s leading innovations. Fact: M-Pesa is a platform, not an app. Because of this, the M-Pesa system is transparent to the user device, making it independently available across anything categorised as a mobile phone by today’s standards.

Platforms are built to scale by catering to the lowest common denominator (M-Pesa uses SMS text messages to effect transactions). This therefore frees up development on the mobile side for use of current infrastructure or a very light client.

This lesson was more or less well implemented by the successful OperaMini mobile browser. To many people, it is the perfect mobile browser. It compresses huge pages to save data costs while at the same time rendering them optimally for a mobile device.

What they don’t realise though is that all that is done by OperaMini’s proxy servers, which fetch the actual page for you, compress it by up to 90 percent then send a user a mobile view representation of the page in their proprietary OBML. Snaptu also worked on a similar principle before Facebook acquired them and closed shop.

We must however beware of ‘Internet propaganda,’ the mentality created on the Internet by listening to the thoughts of a particular group of people. For example, we all know what’s hot in the United States right now (iOS, Pinterest, Angry Birds) and mistakenly equate this to represent the whole world.

There are over a billion people living in China yet next to nothing is known of the online scene. India is one of the hottest emerging online economies, yet again, what’s hot or not in India remains uncovered.

Internet users are reportedly excited about Angry Birds and how it is supposedly the most played game, yet ‘Snake’ beats it hands down on majority of Kenyan’s phones. It is time developers stopped emulating what is going out there and focused on what is missed locally.

A harsh reality about building platforms is that they are some of the hardest and toughest things to do. They take a lot of hard work and patience to mature, unlike apps, which are either a hit or not. However, the beauty of it — also unlike apps — is that they’re rarely one hit wonders.

Platforms surpass fads and ultimately become trends. With time, they further become more renowned, attracting more and more people, turning them into more-or-less a standard (picture WhatsApp). Platforms are the next saving face of the budding Kenyan mobile economy, it’s simply a matter of who’s up for the challenge.

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