An app a day

Past and future

As businesses are working out what mobile applications can do for them, the ways in which connected citizens shop, eat, play, or even participate in activism are also finding new angles through the medium of mobiles. Inevitably, apps for local businesses, or addressing local tastes and concerns, will come to hold a special place in the digital market. Here, Executive takes a looks at seven sectors where homegrown Lebanese mobile applications are beginning to offer consumers new possibilities, and sometimes new powers — although almost without exception, there’s still a long way to go.

Sophisticated shopping sprees

For a multi-brand, multi-venue shopping destination like Le Mall an app can both reflect some of the variety that is part of mall shopping, or help make the experince less painful for customers who see digitization as a way out of an overwhelming experience. The app can search more than 200 stores by category, floor or name, then locate them on a browse-able floor plan. When the device is shaken, it will throw up a daily highlighted event or promotion. 

While innovative, it’s a long way from, say, Selfridge’s in London, whose analysis of Christmas shoppers last year led them to launch a mobile optimized website aimed exclusively at the men who leave their purchases to the last minute, and whose (online) purchases, naturally, could be delivered home or collected in-store. 

For brand-specific retail apps, the move to a mobile interface can be an opportunity to cohere different strands of a business. V World, for example, is the app for Lebanese interior designer Vick Vanlian’s. The welcome screen draws together his style blog, Envy interiors, Galerie Vanlian, Vanlian Developments and Kare Design enterprises. For the present, though, the app remains largely a product showcase.

Appetite for life

Local fast food outlets Crepaway and Roadster Diner have both made their menus and outlet information available in mobile application form, so you can view your order (Crepaway) or shake your device for a random meal suggestion (Roadster). Cute, yes, but neither yet addresses the potential for app-based ordering made famous by American fast food brand Chipotle, launched in 2009, which offers users the chance to build, order and pay for their own burritos without ever speaking to a human being. The service was so popular it crashed servers during its first week and by May 2010 had over 700,000 downloads.

Away from fast food and into the kitchen, digital developers are also celebrating more traditional Lebanese food. Recipe sharing website shahiya.com built a collection of 101 tried and tested recipes for their app Cook Lebanese, which is carefully pitched to international cooks, ensuring that all ingredients are easily available worldwide. Consumers who want some local celebrity color could also choose the Lebanese cuisine app from TV star Chef Ramzi, which, as well as recipes, you can browse by region and type, features video and audio files from the chef and regular recipe updates.

Banking on it

Mobile account services allow smartphone users to process basic account functions on their handsets. Interest in mobile banking is growing worldwide, and despite continuing concerns about security, American mobile banking customers and businesses are beginning to be able to process large sums via their smart phones. The existing Lebanese banking apps cover these bases in a limited way; with Bank Audi’s free audimobile service, you use text messages to request your account balance and last five transactions, and if you have multiple Audi accounts linked up to audimobile, you can also transfer money between them. 

Banque Libano-Francaise’s free app, My BLF, has gone a step further including a nearest branch and ATM locator, and a loan simulator that allows customers to get an idea of new and used car loans, and personal, housing and educational loans at the touch of a button. 

A searching business

Apps also exist for searching Lebanese businesses online: 5Index and the Yellow Pages provide access to the contact details of a wide range of local services and businesses, through a straightforward search engine or a category search. When you’ve found the business you’re looking for, you can call or email them via their listing page, but there’s little in the way of other information, leaving customers waiting for advanced review, filter and map functions. A sector-specific app that is built on a website that already includes these functions would be perhaps more successful, such as Hotels in Lebanon, which includes star ratings, cut price deals, a map locator and is searchable by area.

Communication stations

Both of Lebanon’s mobile service operators, mtc touch and Alfa, allow users to send free web-to-mobile SMS; local application Foo-me harnesses this capability for smart phones and it also features a chat option and a raft of additional weather and horoscope-checking functionalities. Most of the buzz, however, is reserved for Silicon Valley-based application WhatsApp, that provides free cross-platform messaging and now group chat and is a runaway success that is starting to eat into SMS traffic around the world, which is beginning to decline.

Mobile media

Live TV streaming, episode clips, archives and programme schedules are available from LBCI and MTV, though users on Android Market report frequent crashing and incompatibility problems. Lower bit-rate entertainment can be found via apps like that of the well-known Beiruting.com social website. Beiruting.com allows for storing and sharing pictures of events and parties, but their mobile app draws together a range of functions, including a venue directory, event listings and daily deals. 

Gaming apps are some of the most popular worldwide, though especially in the US, where communications research firm Nielsen reported in June 2011 that gaming apps were the most used apps in the American market, and those consumers are most willing to pay for. Back in Lebanon, the locally developed Arabic language game Birdy Nam Nam was downloaded 250,000 times in its first week of release and ranked number one in the Arab world on the iTunes store, demonstrating the power of a well-made, if derivative, app with a local twist. 

Making a difference?

The power of the technologically enabled citizen has never been more discussed in the Arab world than in the last year, and some companies are using mobile applications to creatively engage smartphone users in corporate social responsibility campaigns. Cheyef 7alak — Lebanese Arabic written in colloquial SMS characters which roughly means ‘Do you see yourself’ — is a concept created by advertising agency Impact BBDO and endorsed by LBCI, which encourages citizens to photograph and share instances of traffic lawlessness (“If attention is what they’re looking for, why let them go unnoticed?” runs the tagline) and corruption. 

As campaigning tools go, so far it’s pretty static. But in a bid to justify some of the most expensive city cleaning fees in the world, Averda, the waste management company behind Sukleen, has boldly proposed an interactive community improvement tool with its iaverda campaign, launched in Abu Dhabi last year and due to eventually to arrive in Lebanon; iaverda invites citizens to photograph instances of waste and post them via the app, from where Averda will locate and clean up the mess, then post a photo of the results in return. 

Finally, with little sign of the government stepping up to the service provision table, sometimes citizens have to use advanced technology to find their own way around a problem. Witness the free Beirut Electricity Cut Off app for Android, which displays a calendar, dynamically updated every day, to keep track of the blackouts in your area or that of your friends and family. Complementary to this, on the way up the stairs in the dark, you can light the way with the various flashlight apps available for most smartphones.

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