Arno du ToitArno du Toit

Local companies wanting to go mobile shouldn’t neglect feature phones

The local mobile application market is growing, says Arno du Toit, chief commercialisation officer for Virtual Mobile Technologies (VMT).

According to , VMT uses a platform called Ramp to develop cross-platform applications for businesses to make their back-end services available on mobile devices.

“We fall into the mobile enterprise application platform space. Our function is to take existing business products or processes and to extend that into the mobile space for our clients,” he explains. “That’s quite a wide arena.”

He says the company helps create apps for a variety of different companies and business units, from financial services to ERP extensions, retail extensions to self-service portals. “Pretty much any back-end service that a company has that they think would be useful to extend to internal users or customers.”


The Ramp platform, says Du Toit, allows the apps to be developed across mobile devices and operating systems, including feature phones. “It’s a single language platform that allows you to develop cross-platform mobile apps.”

Du Toit says a popular application at the moment is self-service. Often, a company has financial information it wants to share with customers, such as balances or transaction history. Giving customers a mobile self-service portal eases the load of call centres. “We’re seeing a lot of interest in that space, extending information to customers they can access on a 24-hour basis.”

To a lesser degree, companies are developing mobile apps for internal use. It aids a mobile sales force to have CRM and sales information available at sales calls. “It’s a really broad space and each client and business unit has a unique need that they want to mobilise.”

However, says Du Toit, there are general trends among different types of companies. “A heavy consumer-facing company would create a self-service portal for their clients to access information… The two biggest trends are consumer-focused and B2B apps.”

VMT launched in 2005, and Du Toit says a big change in the market occurred fairly recently. “From early 2011 to mid-2011 there was dramatic change. We saw the enterprise mobile space come online.”

He says there was a big push to mobilisation of products and services in that period. Prior to that, companies were interested, but didn’t quite know how to take the leap. “They were all interested, but didn’t quite know what to do with it.”

While the mobile business applications are not overshadowing consumer apps, they are coming from a low base and growing rapidly. All business units have some sort of mobile requirement, he explains, they’re just trying to figure out how to go mobile.


The biggest concern for businesses is privacy and of information, especially if there’s confidential information being moved around, says Du Toit. “It’s going to become more of an issue as more people go mobile.”

He says prior to 2011, with USSD mobile Web banking, wasn’t as big a concern, but it is increasing as the market grows. Also, he says, for larger companies there’s a big reputational risk if their data is ever compromised.

For application consumers, the biggest concern is data usage. They don’t know how much data a certain app will consume, and may be reluctant. “If you haven’t been a heavy tech user, and you’re new, there is the fear of the unknown. How much data is it using? Will it come with a virus? But once you’re in that space, you realise those fears were unfounded.”

He says the biggest headache for companies wanting to go mobile is choice of platform. “People aren’t aware platforms like Ramp exist. They look at building each individually.”

He says companies in SA lack awareness of mobile app platforms. If a company wants a mobile app, the first thing they do is Google it. Apple has such good visibility in that space, that companies want iPhone apps first. However, iPhone penetration in SA is very low.

The information about mobile application development, he says, is largely dominated by developed economies.


In SA, says Du Toit, we started mobilising our apps later than in Western Europe and North America. However, we have been seeing significant growth, he says.

The biggest difference in SA is that the majority of our users are not smartphone users. If companies fail to take the feature phone market into account, they could miss up to 80% of the market. “An American company can get away with just making apps for Android and iPhone. If you do that locally, you’re missing out a massive chunk of your market.”

He says using Ramp, VMT can build native apps for a phone from 2003 onwards. “It might not look as pretty as an iPhone app, but you still get good functionality.” Despite the relative simplicity of a feature phone, he says there are still many things users can do. “You can still do mobile payments, or make queries. The actual capabilities of a feature phone are underestimated by people who haven’t worked with it before.”