Corporate brands look to young developers

To provide services that are relevant to market conditions, some companies are looking beyond their in-house IT units to get fresh new ideas.

SINGAPORE--To ensure they continue to provide services that are relevant to market conditions, some companies are looking beyond their in-house IT departments to get fresh new ideas.

Jowena Liang, senior vice president and head of consumer marketing and Internet banking, Singapore, at DBS' consumer banking group, said: "Usually the people who use mobile applications are young people. Sometimes, when you're too close to the business, you're hampered by barriers like budget constraints and mental blocks."

To tap the ideas of young developers in engaging the mobile audience, four corporate sponsors have joined Yahoo to support its recent mobile developer competition.

The competition, announced about a month ago, was extended to students from six Singaporean tertiary institutes, and called for widgets to be developed on Yahoo's mobile app platform, specific to what the sponsors--DBS Bank, Kellogg Asia, Malaysia Airlines and UEEEU.com--were asking for.

Challenges of making consumable mobile apps

One value proposition Yahoo hopes its mobile platform will hold for developers is its aim to be hardware-agnostic, said Gavin Hall, regional product manager, connected life Asia, Yahoo.
In an interview, Hall said one of the greatest challenges the mobile space poses for developers is in ensuring compatibility with the myriad devices available.
In comparison, the options in the PC space are far more limited, he said.
"It is tremendously difficult to make a mobile app. When you focus on one handset, you exclude the others.
"And you have to worry about screen sizes, operating systems, operating system versions, and so on," said Hall.
Yahoo's mobile platform, called Blueprint, aims to present developers with a way to "code once" and have the application compatible with many devices.
Developers can write for the phones with the highest capability, and the platform will "degrade the experience gracefully" depending on the eventual end user's device. "This allows developers to focus on content," he said.

DBS' Liang told ZDNet Asia the bank was interested in making a mobile application available to customers, and hoped the winning widget would provide some insight into mobile users' preferences.

"We're looking for breakthrough ideas...DBS has won a lot of awards for its [Web] Internet banking service. The challenge is to move it up a notch to mobile," said Liang.

On why DBS was looking beyond its in-house IT team, to the competition participants for ideas, she said: "Usually the people who use mobile applications are young people. Sometimes, when you're too close to the business, you're hampered by barriers like budget constraints and mental blocks."

Liang, who was on the judging panel for the DBS widget, said she was impressed with the entries demonstrated, "given the short time [the developers] had to create the widgets".

However, she expressed reservations regarding the widgets' readiness for prime time use with the bank, citing security holes. The bank's online banking application relies on a Java applet to encrypt transactions, but it is not able to integrate this with the Yahoo platform, which itself is a Java application.

"We haven't found a way to do mobile banking that is as secure, so we may offer less sensitive information like discounts and promotions via the mobile app, but not banking transactions yet.

"We have to be 100 percent sure about security," she said.

Liang added that she would be interested in having the winning team work with DBS' developers to bridge this gap, however.

Kellogg Asia vice president of marketing and innovation, Robert Woodall, said this marks the food manufacturer's first foray into the mobile space in the region.

"We are looking at different ways of talking to consumers. We want [the widget] to create a personal relationship with them," Woodall said in an interview with ZDNet Asia.

He noted that the marketing spin is slightly different in Asia compared to the West, and expects this to impact the message the widget carries.

Consumers in the West are more concerned with weight loss, while fewer Asians have obesity-related issues, and are more concerned with "shaping up and being healthy" than losing weight, per se, he said.

He said he would prioritize simplicity of use in his judging criteria: "Will the widget be something that people will really use? Utility factor is important," said Woodall.

Mobile opportunity in Asia
Turochas Fuad, head of mobile, connected life Southeast Asia, Yahoo, said the mobile space is of high value to the Web company because for many users in Asia, "the mobile is a starting device to the Internet".

Compared to users in other regions whose first experience with the Internet was on the PC, many Asians in emerging markets who cannot afford PCs often encounter the Internet for the first time via mobile devices, Fuad explained.

"There are also issues with reach, where there is no fiber for broadband yet. This presents a great opportunity for mobiles," he said.

By penetrating the mobile space, Yahoo hopes to capture this new audience, which can be tapped for both advertising revenue and deeper user insights. Fuad said the more users on the platform, the more their behavior can be studied and presented to vendors who are interested in reaching out to mobile customers.

"Many companies have not mobilized their strategies. Yahoo! Go is a quick way to tap this market," he said.

The participating schools were Nanyang Technological University (NTU), National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Polytechnic (NP), Ngee Ann Polytechnic (NAP), Singapore Polytechnic (SP) and Temasek Polytechnic (TP).

The winners, which were announced Thursday were: NTU for the DBS category, TP for Kellogg Asia, SP for Malaysia Airlines and NP for UEEU.com.