Smartphone apps: Where are the unions?

A few years ago, no one ever heard of a “smartphone”. A few years from now, every one of us will own one. This has implications for trade unions which we’re not yet facing up to.


Smartphones, for those who don’t know the term, are essentially Internet-connected handheld computers that include making and receiving telephone calls as one of their many features. They replace personal digital assistants (PDAs) and MP3 players, combining those features with a cellphone.
The summer of 2009 is shaping up to be a turning point. Already an estimated 100 million smartphones are being used around the world every day. The most popular ones are the Apple iPhone, the BlackBerry phones from RIM, and the new phones based on Google’s Adroid system. Palm, the company that made the first successful handheld computers, has re-entered the game in a big way with the early June launch of a new operating system for smartphones (WebOS) and the first device to use it (the Palm Pre).
With millions of trade union members already using such phones, our movement is falling far behind in taking advantage of this fact. What we need to be doing is creating “apps” — small applications to make union news and information readily available on those phones.
Apple already offers some 30,000 apps through their App Store. These include many from established news sources such as the BBC or The New York Times. These are often free of charge.
But why have a dedicated app when your organisation already has a website? Surely you can view the union’s website on these smartphones?
All it takes is five minutes with an iPhone to see the difference. Websites, which are designed for large screens, render in tiny fonts, and require re-sizing or scrolling left and right in order to be seen. A properly designed app is optimised for the small screen. There is no need to scroll or squint.
Of the tens of thousands of apps already available for download from Apple there does not appear to be a single one from a trade union. A search for the word “union” reveals apps for Rugby Union, for the EU, and credit unions. But not one union anywhere has yet created an iPhone app that makes its information readily accessible to members on these enormously popular devices.
What’s involved in creating such apps? It depends on the smartphone they’re being designed for.
Apps for the iPhone are best designed on Apple Macs, which are not the platforms used by the vast majority of us. Apps for the Google Android phones can be written on any computer. Apps for the brand new Palm Pre are even easier to create as they’re written in the same languages websites are designed in. For that reason, Palm is likely to quickly have thousands of apps on offer.
Unions that want to reach the millions of their members already using such phones — and the tens of millions who will soon own them — should be making their apps available today.

5 Responses to “Smartphone apps: Where are the unions?”

  1. johninnit Says:

    Plus of course making sure activists know how to use their software already out there…
    My smartphone (Windows mobile running HTC Touch HD) has a great RSS reader, which keeps me in touch with dozens of union sources on my commute to work. The audio player (unencumbered by iTunes) is able to play podcast files, and there’s a YouTube client which ready-compresses video for quick (and cheap) mobile use.
    I downloaded a freeware Twitter/Twitpic app that lets me keep in touch and publish on the move.
    It helps me actually get to demos or meetings via my sat nav application, and once there, take notes, voice memo, photos and video of what’s going on.
    The web implementation is good enough (on a bigger and higher resolution screen than the iPhone) to upload the results to WordPress or Twitter.
    A tool like this, the Android HTC Magic or the (hiss) iPhone 3GS is a powerful personal assistant for any activist, and it won’t take long for standards to go even beyond the iPhone limitations (Samsung have another high-res iPhone killer in the pipeline).
    I don’t know if specific Labor apps themselves are needed so much as an awareness that this is increasingly how our activists will be wanting to engage with us. There are 6 major plaforms (the Mac, Palm, Android and Blackberry you mention, plus Symbian and Windows), and developing for coverage of such a wide market would be pretty expensive.
    As good maybe to focus on technologies like RSS, and those already well mobile-supported aspects of web interaction.

  2. Eric Lee Says:

    John’s right, but it’s not enough to just use RSS. The BBC, for example, does not have a proper iPhone application, so people have built apps using RSS. The problem is that when you click on a title, you are shown the web page which is unformatted for the iPhone. Compare this to Sky News or ITN, which have proper apps, so that when you click on a title, the story also appears in the same one-column window. This is not hard to do, but unions need to make sure that their RSS feeds open into small-screen friendly displays when being called up by such a device.

  3. Chris Lawson Says:

    Apps? No thanks.

  4. Chris Lawson Says:

    So much for your blog accepting HTML.
    What I was trying to say:
    Given the number of application platforms we’d have to develop for, it makes much more sense to me, if all we want to do is put the latest news on our members’ smart phones, to create a handheld stylesheet and send people to our websites.

  5. Alex White Says:

    Apart from aggregating news from union websites, what would iphone or smartphone apps do?
    Really, there is a possible use for union peak bodies (e.g. the ACTU in Australia or TUC in the UK) to have smartphone apps. The economies of scale and greater resources make it more feasible than individual unions doing it.
    Alternatively, unions could invest in serious organising apps for organisers to use. For example, membership integration, so people can join using the organiser’s iphone, list building, etc.
    However, I was reminded that in the 80s and 90s, union organisers thought that laptops would be the next big thing for organising. My union invested in several “pool” laptops, and they do not get used very often, even after being upgraded.