Upwardly mobile

Smartphone technology is now so advanced that we can conduct most daily business from the palm of our hand. James De Vile finds out how companies are catering to this new – and demanding – consumer

Pay a bill. Renew a visa. Apply for a loan. Watch a movie. Order a taxi. Order food. Purchase almost any- thing. Navigate to somewhere you’ve never been before. Until recently, such activities required us to visit a customer service centre, phone someone, drive to the mall or unfurl a map. Yet today all can be achieved with a few choice swipes and taps of that powerful computer now carried in almost every pocket or handbag: the smartphone.

Smartphone penetration has really taken hold in two key markets: Africa and the Middle East. In Africa, mobile banking has developed more rapidly than it has in the West. M-Pesa, a Kenyan money-transfer service, allows anyone with a phone to move funds between various banks for a low fee. Even a tribesman with the Maasai has been quoted as saying he buys cattle with M-Pesa because it’s “far more secure than carrying cash”.

Similarly, in the Middle East high smart-phone penetration rates have been making headlines for a number of years now. A recent report by Nielsen revealed that 78 per cent of the UAE population owns a smartphone – almost 10 per cent more people than in the US. 

Dubai-based Careem is just one of a number of mobile-savvy businesses in the emirate that are reaping the benefits of this increasing smartphone saturation. The mobile chauffeur-driven-limousine booking app now serves 14 cities across the Middle East and Asia, and recently secured US$10m of investment.

As we increasingly conduct our business from the palm of our hand, there is an inevitable effect: the more empowered we are, the more expectant we become. Lifestyle apps such as Facebook enable us to interact and share anything at any time, so why should this simplicity not be available in every part of our lives?

Such demand poses a significant challenge to industries that are used to relying on face-to-face contact within bricks and mortar. One industry that has had to quickly rise to the challenge of consumer expectation is the retail banking sector. Ten years ago, if we needed to pay a bill, the only option open to us was to visit a bank branch during working hours, take a ticket and wait for counter service.

But nowadays, if we cannot complete financial transactions late at night from the back seat of a taxi via our mobile phone, we will move our bank account to one that enables us to do so.

“We’ve seen a huge surge in the uptake of mobile banking services in the past few years,” explains Khalid Elgibali, Head of Retail Banking and Wealth Management, UAE and Mena, HSBC Bank Middle East. “People here are increasingly relying on these platforms to carry out their everyday banking needs.”

HSBC launched its mobile-banking app for UAE users in late 2011. Three years later, digital transactions contributed to 86 per cent of its total dealings.

Meanwhile, new NFC (near-field communication) technology built into the most modern smartphones is facilitating a whole new method of payment. Apple Pay, launched in 2014, has quickly established itself as a significant competitor to cash or card transactions. CEO Tim Cook recently revealed that it now accounts for more than two-thirds of Visa, MasterCard and American Express contactless payments in the US.

With more and more consumers using their smartphones as their number-one online access point, the success stories will come from those organisations bold enough to do the same. From new startups to age-old industries, the key will be how quickly the transition to a ‘mobile-first’ – or even ‘mobile-only’ – strategy can be made.