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.