Much of the attention in the mobile app space has been drawn by a number of high profile games, social networking and entertainment titles, which appeal to a set of connected consumers making the most of the capabilities of the smartphone.

But apps also offer the potential to transform the way that existing businesses operate, offering new convenience for consumers as well as providing enterprises with the chance to exploit the potential of mobile technology.

Masabi works with a number of UK rail companies to offer mobile ticketing services, offering customers the chance to buy from feature phones as well as smartphones. Doing this has required heavy back-end work to integrate with rail companies’ existing infrastructure and systems, as well as the need to build scalable infrastructure.

Tom Godber (pictured), the company’s CTO, told Mobile Apps Briefing: “we view transport as the beachhead application for m-commerce. We’re introducing vast numbers of customers to the concept for the first time and getting them comfortable with making their first significant payment on the mobile phone.”

At the start of November 2011, Masabi announced its US$4 million Series B funding round from venture capital fund m8 Capital, which followed an earlier (September 2010) US$2 million round from the same company.

It said the cash will be used to support the rollout of its technology with additional rail companies in the UK, and to expand into new markets including the US. It also intends investing in new features, including NFC support.

Apps beyond the tech sector
One of the most interesting things about Masabi is that it is using apps to address what it is currently a non-ICT-led industry – rail ticketing. This has meant that it has spent a lot of time engaging with partners who come from a very different starting point.

Godber said: “Unsurprisingly, the rail industry and mobile industry are pretty different animals. As mobile specialists, we’ve made it our business to learn the rail industry inside out so we can help our rail clients make the most of mobile.”

But in order to attract the support of the industry, the company also had to address the challenge of creating a mass-market app which is appealing enough to attract both new and repeat users. “Transport cuts across a wide demographic, including large numbers of people who have not only never used an m-commerce app before, but have never used their phone for anything other than voice and text. The driver in converting such people is to relieve a genuine everyday frustration – such as queuing for a ticket machine,” he continued.

Godber highlighted the need for companies to know what they are looking to achieve before embarking on an app project: “Does the app actually provide value to the user? Does it relieve a fundamental frustration? Does it provide a better way of doing something than the alternatives?”

“There is sometimes a danger in mobile that businesses want to mobilise a service because it is seen as the fashionable thing to do – even when there are more appropriate alternatives. For example, if you’re expecting the user to browse content as a one off, you should ask them to use the web – ask why they will want to install an app and if there is enough content for them to return to it,” he said.

The cross platform challenge
In order to rollout a service like m-ticketing, it is also important to offer the broadest device support possible. Fragmentation of device platforms makes this a challenge, and “for this reason many developers neglect a huge chunk of the market,” Godber said.

“We are fortunate in that we have been developing applications for so long that for us, it is a manageable problem. As such, we have the team to roll out apps on all major platforms – not just smartphones. It’s much easier to add cool advanced smartphone features to a streamlined and adaptable app structure than it is to attempt to port a large fully featured iPhone app to 50 different mainstream phones,” he continued.

Moving forward, the company is taking a pragmatic approach to its platform strategy. “The more languages and development platforms you have to support, the higher the cost of development, so we put significant effort into reaching the maximum number of people with the minimum number of platforms,” Godber noted.

“For example, in addition to Android and iOS we currently support BlackBerry and Symbian, as well as feature phones, using a MIDP code base which is greatly more efficient than having to code individually for each. We’re also actively developing for Windows Phone 7 ahead of the Nokia devices hitting the market,” he continued

And while HTML5 will provide developers with an easier path to cross-platform apps, “there are a number of issues to solve before it can be used for a ticketing application such as ours, where offline access to tickets is essential and many users suffer from poor data connections on the move or in crowded stations,” Godber observed. “While the HTML5 specifications for offline support are great in principle, the reality is that it’s not currently a reliable experience.”

Steve Costello