By Dr. Christelle Scharff
In late June, Amadou and Imhotep, two Senegalese developers of SenMobile, attended a 2-day training bootcamp sponsored by Nokia on developing apps for the new Asha 501 in Lagos, Nigeria. Asha 501 phones can be programmed using Java ME and some specific web development technology. The Java ME community of Senegal is small. Companies and startups are generally focusing on Android. Developers, with the push of Google and Microsoft, are often developing for Android and Windows Phones. MobileSenegal has been pushing mobile app development in Senegal since 2008 with an emphasis on Java ME, Android native and jQuery Mobile for multi-platform development.
This blog post focuses on the experience of Amadou and Imhotep in the bootcamp.
The bootcamp took place at the Co-creation Hub Nigeria in Lagos. The Co-creation Hub is “Nigeria’s first open living lab and pre-incubation space designed to be a multi-functional, multi-purpose space where work to catalyze creative social tech ventures take place”. Our two developers had the pleasure to take part in the large community of the Co-creation Hub. They were impressed by the place, especially by the rooftop that has a great view of Lagos! They saw many differences between the community of developers in Lagos and the one in Senegal. Please note that Lagos is a city of 8 million inhabitants and Senegal has only around 13 million people. To just cite an example, most of the developers in Senegal do not have a credit card and they have real financial difficulties to buy mobile phones to test their apps, relying often on more fortunate friends or on emulators. In Nigeria, developers have credit cards and they can set up an account to buy apps in an app store. This is very important for developers. You need to eat the dog food as they say!
What’s up with the Asha 501?
The 501, which is being rolled out for sale worldwide, is a low-priced smartphone (less than $100 US) for emerging markets and Nokia promised a fast, responsive performance and long battery life (one of their sales slogan: “Super smart pocket power”). Software-wise, it features a radically different OS from other Asha and Series 40 devices. It has the feel of a latest generation smartphone! Nokia provides a new SDK with new guidelines for design and user interfaces on their developer site.
One of the key features on the 501 is the lack of physical keys on the phone’s main area. There is only one button there and it is reserved for the back function. In designing the UI, Nokia dictates specifically in not using an onscreen back or exit button, as this will be done exclusively with the physical back key. This behavior is drastically different from previous Asha and Series 40 devices and it will take some effort porting apps developed for the older OS and devices to this new platform! Asha 501 offers an interface with a headbar, a content area, a toolbar, and option menu on the top of a notification bar and a notification panel. More on the UI can be found here.
The size of the JAR app installation file on the 501 is limited to 5 MB or less. This was decided to reduce the failure rate of user downloads and app installation. Because of this, it is important to optimize everything, e.g. sound, images. More work for the developers!
The bootcamp was organized around talks and personal design review sessions with UX/UI experts. The talks included deep dives into the design of apps for the Asha 501, how to port Series 40 apps to the Asha 501, and monetization. The main lesson of the talks is that design is crucial in app development. Sounds like common sense, but we always forget this when we are working. It is important to think carefully and make some key decisions about the app before developing anything! Knowing the specificities / standards of the platform is also required: just look at how any app that is available on Android and Windows Phone and you can see the difference right away. It was also pointed out that it is important to take some distance and ask for feedback from others on a design or app. An external eye is always welcome!
Our two developers had the opportunities to participate in one-to-one app reviews with Jan Krebber, UX Specialist, Nokia Developper Experience. The Nokia expert reviewed CoiffeurCompta, an app for barbers to manage their accounting (BarberMoneyBox, the English version of this app, will be available soon), and the design of NawetaanLive, an app for the Nawetaans soccer games. Getting selected for these sessions was not easy due to their popularity amongst participants. However a good sport app is necessary on the Nokia Store! These sessions were extremely valuable because they provided detailed insight on building a great Asha 501 app that takes advantage of the platform’s unique features. We will use what we have learned to port these Series 40 apps to the Asha very soon.
Our two developers thank Nokia for their invitation to the bootcamp. It was their first time in an Anglophone country and visit such a crowded city. Dakar does not compare! They could understand the importance of speaking English. Google Translate is nice on a computer but in real life situation it is important to be able to communicate with people and English is a must! They said that they often overlook design and placed more importance on implementing features, but they will take what they learned and use it in all of their future applications.
Note: Dr. Christelle Scharff, one of the organizers of MobileSenegal, is the founder of SenMobile.