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What is an app? That’s the first question a panel discussion sought to answer this week as part of a session around bringing apps to the mass market. Nokia’s own Mary McDowell sat on the panel which also included reps from a number of operators and developers.

At first I thought the first question a pointless one. Then I started listening. We think of apps right now as being represented by an icon on a screen. Something that enhances our mobile lives in a few seconds (checking a train time) or wastes hours of it (Angry Birds). But according to this panel, we need to think broader than that.

The general consensus which, to be fair, I’m coming round to myself is that apps actually split into three broad categories. The first are apps which we understand as being pieces of binary downloaded to our devices and represented by that pretty little icon. The second are bigger, or broader, service-based apps. Not just services which are reliant on the internet, but things like SMS services delivering news, weather reports or (such as Nokia Life Tools) crop prices. The third, and equally interesting are browser-based apps which offers a huge range of choice (both for devices and the kind of services which can be offered on them). Witness something like Dropbox (which also crosses all three categories).

With views from around the world, it was interesting to see what others think about apps. For example, those who use feature phones tend to call apps services, whereas smartphone users are stoic users of the term apps. You, like me, might question the relevance of this discussion, but as the session went on, it made more and more sense.

Discoverability is a key enabler for an app’s success (whether it be an app or a service). Fragmentation is equally an issue, specially when you’re a small development shop with limited resource. It was in that context that having a solid mobile web strategy was highlighted as being a key driver in an app’s success.

How an app is consumed is also crucial. In India, for example, many users like to consume apps in small bites. Referred to as sachet users, they’d rather get an app for free and then pay for specific features in the app later on. This is clearly a social thing, given that it’s happening in a country where buying things in bit-part is commonplace.

Operator billing has also proven to be a big driver in an app’s financial success. The addition of the feature has proved to increase the chance of someone paying for an app, or an in app purchase. This latter part is key in countries like China, where users don’t like paying for apps, but have little issue with paying for a feature within an app.

Mark Curtis from Flirtomatic highlighted the dramatic shift in revenues he saw when his app switched from a subscription model to a freemium model, where users can “flirt” for free but buy extras which Curtis describes as “fun round the edges”. The near instant jump in revenues told him his strategy shift was absolutely the right one and as he says himself “he hasn’t looked back since”.

One of the biggest challenges facing developers though is choosing which devices to develop for first. Some are clear leaders in this field and mark an obvious choice for where coding efforts should be focussed. The evolution of a third ecosystem will go some way to simplifying this process whilst still offering the kinds of choices consumers want.

With everything in place, the scene will be set for everyone to benefit. Consumers will not only have a choice of ecosystems to choose from, enabling them to select the one which suits them best but they’ll be able to do so safe in the knowledge that all the enhancements, apps and services they’ll want will also be on offer. Likewise for developers they’ll have an infrastructure in place that’ll enable them to not only create a winning app that’s popular, but also generates real revenue. That, I reckon, will be a true appetite for success.

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