The first natural question that is often asked is -- Why Native Apps? Why not browse the web site itself from the smart phone and get the job done? The answer lies in this simple example. If you are standing near an ATM and want to check your balance, would you use the ATM or would you like to log into your bank website by typing long user names and passwords? Accessing a conventional web page from a small phone screen with large horizontal scroll bars is never so elegant. Web pages take some amount of time to load and sometimes look scary when rendered partially due to slower internet. Also the non tech savvy people often find it difficult to enter the address in the browser and look for the proper hyperlink to go to the desired web page and do their transaction. Just think about the ATM example that always outperforms its web counterpart due to its simplicity, smooth navigation and ease of use. Of course web pages have one advantage where the ATM can never beat them and that is mobility. Web pages don't require you to walk down the lane to the ATM to check the balance. Native apps in smart phones bring the best of both the world. These apps provide the simple and obvious user interface of an ATM and 'access-from-anywhere' feature of Web Pages. An App is installed in the phone itself. So unlike a web page, it need not be downloaded and rendered every time the user wants to access it, rather it is there in the phone and always connected to the internet. This enables the apps to be much faster and offer fluid navigation.
Are we talking about moving everything from a web page to the apps? Of course.we are not. Utility websites provide a wide range of online services and information, most of which are only sparingly used by the customers. Visit any utility web page and you will be greeted with enormous stuff ranging from green energy to kids safety and from rate inquiry to job search. When a common customer visits the web page, 'most of the times', he is least interested to know the updates on regulatory policy or progress in smart grid implementation. Rather he intends to either pay his monthly bill or report an outage or to do a turn on/off or do some very basic stuff like that. If we apply Pareto principle (also known as the 80-20 rule) it will be evident that most (80%) of the customers use the web page of the utility company to do their primitive tasks; and these primitive tasks constitute rather a small fraction (20%) of the IT services offered through the web page. The new generation customers will be using their smart phone and tablets as primary devices for their browsing needs. In order to pay a bill, they won't like to log into their notebook nor would they like to access the heavy web page from their small phone screen. It will be like forcing them to use a banking site when the ATM is right at their door step. It will eventually be necessary for the utility companies to enable them to access (at least) the basic IT services through their phone. Of course, the 'not so frequently used' services can continue to enjoy their place in the conventional Web Pages.
Smart phone Apps provide much more than just better access to the services. Apps can use the phone's native hard wires like GPS, camera, microphone, gyroscope etc. (where as Web Pages cannot). So an App can provide features like finding direction to the nearest utility office using the GPS, enabling the users to talk to the customer rep. through phone calls on unavailability of internet etc. Apps also can use the messaging services of the phone and do the transaction even without internet. For example if the customer wants to check his electricity consumption, the request can be sent as an outgoing SMS and the response can be delivered as an incoming SMS. The App engine will process the SMS show the result to the user and all these will happen without the customer knowing about the complexities.
Smart phones do not have a steep learning curve as regular computers. They are actually computers for the people, who are afraid of computers. The simple yet elegant user interface does not require the users to remember the web address or learn how to go to the proper page to get the work done; rather the fluid navigation makes the user take some obvious looking steps to do the work. So the people, who never wanted to use their computer to pay a bill or request a turn on/off, will be attracted to use online services. So utility companies can expect more number of online transactions, thereby increasing productive usage of time and effort, which in turn increases the profitability of the company.
With the implementation of Smart Grids, the customer engagement with utilities is likely to increase and this will increase the amount of time that the customer spends on a utility web site or customer service phone calls. According to a survey that research firm 'IDC Energy Insights' conducted, 35 percent of utility respondents that have installed smart meters have seen an increase in call volume of between 10 percent and 30 percent. The research finds that -- "The customer will be more engaged on a daily basis with the utility. The customer will no longer be a passive recipient of a bill, but an active partner in managing energy consumption and cost". And such frequent customer engagement can be better addressed through the smart phone apps, rather than conventional web pages on notebooks.
Now let us come to the 'literally' million $ question. Will it take a lot of time and money to build IT service around the phone Apps? As we all know, the utility industries have already web based IT applications to cater to the need of the customer services. Most of these web applications follow the popular SOA (Service Oriented Architecture) pattern. In an SOA, the IT applications expose various services (for e.g., bill payment, outage reporting etc.) and these services are consumed by the web page. All that needs to be done is to develop front end mobile applications, which will be running in the smart phones and these apps will consume the already existing IT services to get their work done. So it will not require a re-engineering in the existing business process, nor any significant change to the business logic driving the current IT services. The diagram explains the flow.
There is a flip side to the App story also. It needs to be noted that there are a diverse set of mobile platforms present today; the most popular ones being the iOS for iPhone, Symbian for Nokia, Blackberry OS for RIM-BB and Android and Windows for some other phones. Separate apps have to be designed for each of these platforms, though all these devices can be supported by the existing SOA in the back end. The second challenge is a slight shift from the existing IT-service life cycle towards the IT-Product life cycle as far as Native Apps are concerned. Unlike the content of the web pages that can be updated without the user knowing the details, phone Apps will require patches/updates downloaded to the phone. Frequent patch installation will not help in pleasant customer experience. So the application must be bug free to the extent possible to avoid frequent updates. (Please note that we are talking about the front end application only and the back end services in SOA can continue to be updated without user intervention).
In the future, not so far away, one won't really have to be so smart to use one of these smart phones. And the smart phone Apps, from being a nice to have feature of today, would soon become a must have tool of tomorrow. Also the advent of cloud computing, will make the conventional notebooks loose the significance of their powerful hardware as computation will happen in the cloud and this will make tablets and smart phones even more practical. It will not only enrich customer experience by providing faster & seamless IT service, but also increase productivity of the utilities by encouraging the non computer savvy customers to go online. So it is time for the IT leaders to put their thinking caps on and start thinking in the smart direction.
In the coming years smart phones and 3G tablets will become primary device for access internet replacing notebooks and desktop computers. So smart phone Apps will gain popularity as compared to conventional Web Pages for routine mundane tasks like utility bill payment, turn on/off request etc. With the introduction of smart grids, customer engagement with utilities will increase and smart phone apps will provide significant edge than web pages. Also the non computer savvy users will find the phone Apps easier to use due to linear learning curve. This article throws light on the significance of smart phone Apps for utility customers.