Can a Digital Raccoon Tackle Europe’s Crisis?

Preparations for this year's Mobile World Congress are underway already in Barcelona. But this year is shaping up to be an uncomfortable year. Exactly a year ago today, the 2011 MWC came just as tablets were bursting onto the scene. This year there is no obvious new technology anchoring the event. Though some important product announcements are likely, nothing is going to trump the real story this year: the economy.

When people start arriving in Barcelona late next week, they are in for a shock. The news inside the conference hall is almost certain to be overshadowed by the economic conditions outside. They may even have trouble getting to the conference; crisis-related cuts in public services have transit workers threatening to strike during the conference. Right now, even holding a meeting in Europe — to say nothing of doing actual business there — isn't so pretty.

Rather than dwell on that, I went looking for a sign, any sign of optimism going into this year's MWC. And happily found it. Earlier this week, I spoke with a local mobile app developer here in Barcelona, Enric Sola Rodriguez, who runs Esilex Games, a tiny local mobile startup, with his partner, fellow developer Miriam Broceno. Rodriguez and Broceno, who plan to attend the MWC, are among the small number of technology professionals here in southern Europe who are betting on mobile as a way out of Europe's crisis — and doing reasonably well at it.

Their big bet is a 99-cent app for quitting smoking, called Good Nico. The theory, said Rodriguez, is that smokers trying to quit need a way to distract themselves when temptation strikes. So he and Broceno invented Nico, a digital raccoon. After you download the app, Nico lives in your mobile device or tablet, where you swipe a thumb to make him throw packs of cigarettes in a trash, and earn points in a simple game. It's pretty fun, but the idea isn't really game play. It's to have something to distract you for a moment or two and ride out the inevitable nicotine fit. The idea, said Broceno, is that people will send the app to friends trying to quit, as a show of support.

Clever. But really, so what? Throw a pack of cigarettes in San Francisco or New York and you'll hit a mobile app developer. To understand what this means for Europe — what this means for OEMs — look at the numbers. Right now, Spain's unemployment rate is over 20 percent, the worst in the eurozone. For young people aged 18 to 25, which is the demographic mobile OEMs and app developers covet most, a staggering 50 percent are jobless.

So mobile app developers like Rodriguez and Broceno approach the Mobile World Congress differently than Asian or North American developers might. They aren't creating a mobile startup because they want to take a risk with a fun, promising idea. They're a mobile startup because that's the only way they're going to make it right now in Spain. Creating a mobile app like Good Nico is a curiously revolutionary idea here, in a city where the mobile industry holds its biggest yearly event. Rodriguez and Broceno have already appeared in the local newspaper, on one of Barcelona's biggest radio stations, and been asked to lecture at jobs centers on their project.

So the OEMs are, in this case, not providing usability, or even devices, in the case of Spain. Rather, they're providing a pipeline out of a bad economy and taking it global. Nico the raccoon is selling, after all, not just in Spain, but everywhere, via the Apple Store. Rodriguez said one of the greatest sources of hits on the company's Facebook page is mobile users in South America. In a country not known for entrepreneurialism, that's a huge advantage.

The success of a digital raccoon who helps you quit smoking is not the kind of news you'll see coming out of the MWC. It's not as big as the invention of the tablet was last year, or various smaller, faster chips will be this year. It is certainly not an antidote to the ongoing debates about labor conditions in the mobile industry, or evidence that PCs and tablets can co-exist peacefully in the same market. The MWC still has some drama left in it.

However, the story of Rodriquez, Broceno, and Good Nico is a nice reminder of why the conference happens in the first place. It will be telling what sort of response the local developers find among the international visitors at the MWC. We'll follow up with them after the big show.

7 comments on “Can a Digital Raccoon Tackle Europe’s Crisis?

  1. Barbara Jorgensen
    February 16, 2012

    Marc: sometimes, the best stories out of a tech-heavy conference are the human interest ones. I love 'em because I'm not much of a tecchie. But in this economy, this kind of success story is very compelling. I know a lot of good stuff will come out of MWC, but this might be the most positive piece for troubled times. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

    On another note:

    “Throw a pack of cigarettes in San Francisco or New York and you'll hit a mobile app developer.”

    Is the opposite true? If you throw a mobile app developer, will you hit a pack of cigarettes?

  2. stochastic excursion
    February 17, 2012

    It's good to see that mobile app development is becoming a cottage industry like the dotcoms of the late '90's.  I'm sure this is what a lot of mobile platform developers want to see: the killer app that makes the platform a “must have”. 

    The economic hit on the demegraphic you described can limit the sale of app's, but in hard times certain items, like entertainment, become indispensible.  The mobile platform seems resistant to file sharing, especially of app's, so if app's can be tied in with good music and video, that's promising for the industry.

  3. Marc Herman
    February 19, 2012

    All true. I'm also curious if the fact that it's a game about quitting smoking isn't a useful indicator. We know that people are urged to quit smoking in part to save money — tobacco is expensive. And we know apps are really, really cheap (in this case, a buck). So I wonder if the crisis doesn't provide an argument for app development that specifically targets crisis-related behavior, like smoking or quitting smoking. And I wonder if apps in general aren't the wise tech investment now because even someone who is worried about his or her job still has a buck to spend on an app. A few hundred to spend on a device, perhaps not so much, these days.


  4. Taimoor Zubar
    February 19, 2012

    I think mobile app development is certainly an exciting and a lucrative field for young techies who want to be entrepreneurs. The attractiveness lies in firstly having a chance to hit a jackpot if your app becomes successful, and secondly the low investment involved in creating and launching an app. I wonder why app developers are not targeting the commercial sector and making apps that can be used by local businesses. That's also a very attractive niche market.

  5. Barbara Jorgensen
    February 21, 2012

    I agree Taimoor, but like so many things, I think the lifecycle of apps is short-lived. Like dotcoms, there are too many apps striving for an increasingly diminishing piece of the Apple OS or the Android pie. I think the market will be quickly saturated and people will make a lot less money developing apps.

  6. Taimoor Zubar
    February 22, 2012

    @Barbara: I agree that the app industry has become very competitive with a large number of apps in the market and a lot of app developers involved. However, the industry is also a growing one. Smartphones are getting cheaper and becoming more affordable. More and more people each year are becoming smartphone users from normal cellphone users. I guess this makes the future very bright for app developers.

  7. Barbara Jorgensen
    February 22, 2012

    @Taimoor: Apps are one of the areas I don't understand very well, so I'm inclined to agree.  That's the nice thing about a community–you don't have to know everything…

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