Q&A: How Smartphones Are Changing the World

Two years making video games with Electronic Arts, five years running the industry association New Media B.C.–it’s surprising this is your first mobile app. How did your work on ZuluMe start? I was chairing a big meeting, not in the tech sector, and I wanted to check on a family member going through a medical procedure. But I couldn’t pull out my device-I didn’t want to immerse myself in that full social conversation. Which got me thinking: these smartphones are actually a lot smarter than we’re giving them credit for. At the time we thought: I send you 140 characters, a Tweet of what I’m doing; you read it, send something back. It’s a sporadic, binary form of communication. But the people who are closest to you, you want to know what they’re doing, how they’re feeling, all the time.

So how will your app work? ZuluMe is a hybrid social network for your mobile friends. What that means is that it’s for you and at most 10 friends. It’s based on the idea of a mood ring. So if you send out an update to notify your 10 friends that you’re feeling sad, I could respond by sending you your favourite game shirt, different objects that you can play with, silly things like that. I can even dedicate a song to you. It’s almost the opposite of Facebook. Facebook has done us a huge service in introducing the world to social networking, but it’s like going from elementary school to high school: now that we have our network of friends, let’s have deeper relationships.

How much did it cost to build? We had a few false starts-we went through two previous development teams-because the back end is pretty complicated. After two years of development, including seven months of really huddling down, it’s cost a lot. I laugh when people say, “Kids are developing apps in their garage.” Yes, they are. But not the really detailed ones that people actually use. Simple apps might cost in the tens of thousands, but the kind of scale we’re looking at, you’d ballpark $150,000 to $250,000. In our case, I had to pay for my time, staff time, focus groups, and market research. I’ve been really fortunate to have some investment–i.e. me bootstrapping my consulting work, plus an angel investor came onboard.

How do you make your investment back? You don’t make money off the app itself. We’re just finalizing how much ZuluMe will cost by talking to the Apple store and looking at our competition. But monetizing programs for mobile devices requires a shift in thinking. There’s branded campaigns. So Lululemon might pay for a special headband that you can share with your friends’ avatars through the app. And finally, there are the micro-transactions-the gifts I mentioned, the songs-that are increasingly becoming part of the revenue stream.

And you’ve seen signs that the market is open to a private, micro-Facebook app? This seems to be the tipping point for private groups. GroupMe, Beluga, and Kick are all comparable apps that are coming out right now. Beluga is one of our biggest competitors. They’re only three people and they launched a few months ago. They have about three million users and Facebook just acquired them-a talent acquisition, I guess. They’re obviously addressing a market need. So we’ll see if this more intuitive, personal approach is appealing.

How much have mobile devices like the iPhone and the BlackBerry changed since you started development? When we began, we were just starting to see how people were exchanging pictures and other things that weren’t text. Just having a device in your pocket that could do everything was impacting people’s behaviour. In the intervening few years, there’s been a conceptual shift: that I can use this as a phone is nice, but that’s not why I have it. It entertains my child. It has GPS. It’s one of the many screens I watch video and share photos on. If I had to run out of the house, it’s the one thing I’d grab. It’s opened up the floodgates really. Take health care. We can empower people to take control of their bodies if their smartphone can give them an hourly reading of their heart rate, their cholesterol, their consumption for the day, and why they really shouldn’t have that muffin. It can become almost like game play: let’s see what happens if I eat that muffin then go for a run.

Smartphones have become ubiquitous. Is development taking off as well? When we started with mobile apps, it was a bit of a lonely sector in Canada, but in these past two years it’s become different. Telephone companies have seen where the sector is going-even without equity or government intervention, the industry is thriving.

Should the public sector be doing more to help build Canada’s mobile industry? It’s about finding the balance between infrastructure and innovation. The parallel is this: in the ’50s and ’60s, we aggressively laid cable, then subsequently fibre-optic cable. It was an investment in infrastructure so we could communicate or deliver high-speed information or facilitate the transfer of information. And really, it’s that infrastructure that helped us take the digital media and film and TV that we’re known for to that next step. There was government investment in that, but there was also private investment: the Teluses, the Rogers of the world. Now we’re at this interesting point where it still remains an infrastructure question but instead of being able to put cables in the ground or fibre optics, we’re talking about something we can’t see as much: wireless infrastructure. So the question becomes how to help private companies be competitive and profitable, but also ensure we have digital media companies that are able to innovate in a competitive market.

Should we mandate more competition? The difficult conversation we have to have is how do we ensure that private companies can continue to thrive, and telco providers aren’t unduly penalized for their earlier investment in infrastructure. But at the same time we’re putting as much bandwidth into Canadian hands as possible. If not, your average consumer isn’t going to get a smartphone and isn’t going to embrace mobile and isn’t going to embrace improvements to efficiency in their business. And that’s going to put us in a much less competitive position globally.

How does Canada compare to other countries from a mobile perspective? We’re a little backwards in how we treat things like mobile desktops, accessibility. If you look at video games, film and television for sure, Vancouver was pretty much the birthplace of Web 2.0. We have a real opportunity to lead in digital media as well. But we’re too insular in our thinking. Look what’s happening in China, in India, in Brazil-we need to help our companies play in those markets. I just did a speech in Brazil on creating thriving digital media ecosystems. I said that yes, government is an important part but it’s not the only one. It’s apprenticeship and support of employees for their first year or two, it’s tax credits and industry itself. It’s universities and colleges, not just in research and development but the education and training of those in the sector. If we don’t go up to the next level and think of how it’s going to affect us as developers, as producers, as consumers of global digital content, we’re going to lose pace.