Mobile gambling apps took off on the back of a growing interest in general games on mobile devices. The mobile phone games market had opened with a bang in 1997, after Nokia packed its 9110 phone with ‘Snake’. This simple but furiously addictive game became a regular occupation on commuter trips across the world – even Robbie Williams admitted to being an addict, and some magazines ran ‘celebrity league tables’ to determine who was the king cobra. After this opening salvo, however, the market started to stall in the early 2000s. Sluggish hardware combined with an audience fractured by the smorgasbord of competing operating systems and interfaces (PalmOS, BlackBerry, Symbian etc.) meant that games remained overpriced (often costing $20 a shot) and underdeveloped. The 2007 launch of the iPhone, though, changed all of this. Hardware capabilities rocketed, and Apple’s embracing of features like OpenGL support meant that graphics could be ably handled.
More to the point, apps could be created using Objective-C, an offshoot from the widely-used C programming language, and also the same language that Apple was using with its own desktop-oriented OS X operating system. This meant that, right from the start, there were a wide number of talented programmers who would be able to tap into the iPhone’s immense capabilities. When the iPhone came out, Apple initially resisted the idea of allowing those outside the company to create apps for the device. But the phone was quickly cracked, and a wealth of unofficial yet professional apps started infiltrating devices everywhere. Knowing that they couldn’t stem the tide, and realising that there was significant benefit in the sheer flexibility that came from having thousands of third-party developers independently crafting their own apps, Apple was quick to change tack, and the 2008 launch of the App Store would allow third party developers to offer their products to a mass audience, in return for 30% of the profits.
Apple already had much of the architecture in place thanks to its phenomenally successful iTunes service, so the App Store’s implementation was smooth. Over 500 apps were available on the opening day, with a massive 10 million downloads going through in that first weekend. Within three months, 100 million downloads had been recorded. Essentially overnight, a new market had been created in which huge numbers of people (ranging from heavyweight software houses to school-children working from their bedrooms) tried to grab a slice of the pie by thinking the unthought and writing the unwritten. Further competition would come from Google’s Android, an open source operating system that would quickly establish itself across the majority of non-Apple phones, and that also actively promoted the writing of third-party apps – using a variation on the popular Java programming language.
The phone hardware was finally good enough to support proper games, and the combined forces of Apple and Android would generate a maelstrom of creativity, providing fertile conditions from which the as-yet disappointing mobile games market could finally bloom forth. It was at this point that gambling sites, looking for the next big thing to help compensate for the fall of revenues in the wake of a world recession markets, woke up to the possibilities. It was now relatively straightforward and cheap for gaming companies to create stable apps that would let customers place bets from a mobile phone. As prices fell and connection speeds became faster and more reliable, gamblers bearing portable devices started to fill every betting shop in the land. At the start of 2010, for instance, Paddy Power had 10,000 customers using mobile devices. By April 2011, that figure had increased to 120,000. Of Paddy Power’s 2012 online revenue, 32% was made up of mobile revenue. A 2010 report from Juniper Research predicted that the mobile gambling arena will have a value of $100 billion by 2017 – with a juicy $45 billion of net profits available to the leading lights of the industry. Clearly, then, mobile gambling has a bright future. So what is it that attracts so many?
The Pros of Smartphones
The main advantage of mobile gambling is obviously its flexibility. You can log into your account and play essentially anywhere you can get a connection, whether’s that on the train, in the waiting room, or stranded at the office, fighting a company policy that prevents you from running games on your work computer. You could even be down at the racetrack, trying to better the on-course bookies while also checking out the horses themselves in proper detail. You no longer need to be tied to a computer or laptop, and could be comfortably tucked up in bed or on the sofa. Indeed, if you’re only playing for fun, you won’t even need an internet connection once you’ve downloaded the app. Existing non-mobile accounts can often be used, saving you from a tedious sign-up procedure. And because many casino and gambling companies are trying to draw users to their mobile apps, you’re likely to get a host of new free bonus offers – great if you’ve already exhausted the generous deals originally offered to you when you signed up.
The first gaming apps may have been overly complex, representing simple conversions of the web-site to ‘mobile form’. However, the major companies have woken up to the fact that the smaller screen size and limited controls of a smartphone require something different. Many modern gaming apps have clear interfaces with less information crammed in, and simpler controls. Those who like to play the more exotic options may find some of their favourite bet choices have been removed or made more difficult to access. However, the clearer and cleaner interface should suit most users. Indeed, for many, mobile apps offer a faster and more straightforward playing experience than their option-heavy equivalents on desktop and laptop PCs.
Those who like something a little less mainstream have no reason to fear the mobile world, though. The cost of developing apps is low, and development times tend to be much faster than with complex desktop titles. And since there are so many companies (and individuals) competing to design the best version, mobile users are likely to find a healthy choice of titles available to them. The best apps are of very high quality, and are usually very cheap (and sometimes even free) to obtain. Since you probably own a smartphone already, there’s a good chance you won’t have to buy additional hardware. Many phones are bought with the deal that they can be easily traded in when a more advanced version comes out, so app developers have fewer problems having to cater for an audience that, in large part, is still making do with outmoded hardware. And because smartphones are designed primarily for communication, mobile phone apps are often built with multiplayer use as a core function. So unlike desktop versions, frequently targeting the lone user sitting glumly in front of a screen, mobile apps are far more likely to be sucking you into the online community with rich multiplay, leaderboards, and chat options.
The Cons of Smartphones
Not that mobile apps are totally without problems. While encryption technology is today very sophisticated on these devices, users still often distrust mobile phones on the matter of security, and are reluctant to see their financial details dispatched to the ether. In truth, authentication techniques are very strong on modern devices – they have to be, since the threat that somebody else will be using your app is much higher on a highly-desirable easily-stolen mobile phone than on a bulky desktop or laptop secured inside your house. Mobile phones are also pleasingly free of viruses and spyware. The hardware can limit you, though. Games tend to drain the battery very quickly, and should your app crash, you could lose all session information. It’s also difficult (and probably impossible) to play multiple games on a mobile app, so hardened poker players, for instance, who like to have several tables up and running, will find the mobile world a difficult one to like.
And, no matter how you spin it, the small screen size and limited controls can be a problem. Yes, the playing experience can often be faster and less complex. But there will still be those who hanker after a good old mouse and a proper monitor. It’s partly these complaints that could see tablets become the dominant force in mobile gaming.
Tablets, like the Apple iPad and Google Nexus ranges, are larger and unwieldy to hold, but also benefit from having vast screens better suited to gaming. The biggest iPad, for instance, has a 9.7in screen and a resolution of 2,048×1,536 pixels. The iPhones, on the other hand, offer a paltry 4in screen, with a meagre resolution of 1,136×640 pixels. Simply put, tablets offer far more screen and can cater for a much greater level of detail. At the same time, though, they offer plenty of portability – not as much as the slimmer and smaller smartphones, but considerably more than laptops or desktop models. With the right package, the internet is available on tablets from almost anywhere. It is notable, though, that a lot of tablets are bought to run only with a Wi-fi connection. Many users already have wireless routers in their house, and if you’re already paying for a connection for your desktop PC or laptop, your Wi-fi specified tablet can be hooked up to the internet at no extra cost to you. On the other hand, this option does only work if you have Wi-fi available. If you’re in a public place, you may find your tablet without a connection, so the flexibility of tablets isn’t as impressive. Battery life is inferior too, so all-night sessions may need something a little more stable.
In many respects, though, tablets are potentially better options for gambling. Besides the superior screens, they often have better cameras and microphone options. And while they are more difficult to handle, will you necessarily want to hold a smartphone throughout an entire gambling session? Tablets can be quickly set up on an available tabletop for strong hands-free operation. Interfaces are often easier to see and use on the bigger screen, and navigation is usually more straightforward, particularly with the move towards touch sensitivity. There’s probably far more that developers can do to make betting apps work at their optimum level on tablets, but there’s little doubt that the potential is there for these devices to blow smartphones out of the water in terms of a satisfying user experience. Tablets also, strangely, make their users feel more protected. Older customers, in particular, are likely to pick a tablet for its greater sense of security – even though, in reality, the two types of technology have essentially the same level of protection.
The Future of Mobile Gaming
So which will win in the long-term – smartphones or tablets? Well, in truth, it could be that neither will turn out to be the ultimate solution. The battle to offer the very best and most natural interface holds the key here, and neither smartphones or tablets can be seen as truly intuitive. The next few years may well see the rise of what’s called ‘augmented reality’. At its simplest, this term means showing you the ‘reality’ (a live feed of what you’re looking at, for instance), but then ‘augmenting’ it with additional information and features. So you point your smartphone at a footballer, for instance, and the phone recognises the player and instantly shows you the very latest betting offers associated with him or his team. This is relatively natural, and will give people an easy way of finding the relevant bet, rather than forcing them to labour through a series of complex menus to find the right market.
But augmented reality can go much further than this. For instance, you enter an online casino. You see yourself sit down at the table. You look down and you see your cards. You reach across and tap on them, and you can turn them up and look at them. You then look to your sides, and you can see three dimensional representations of the other players, or the dealer. Maybe you strike up a conversation with them? Perhaps you choose instead to go for a walk around your surroundings, looking up at ceilings, floors, leaderboards etc. This may all sound very science fictiony, but the reality is that this type of experience is close to being reality. Many mobile devices have high quality sound and GPS, and sophisticated camera and motion detection systems. Working out the exact co-ordinates of players within an online environment, and then using the real-life actions of a user to determine what their online ‘self’ is doing, is quite possible, even with current technology. And with the imminent release of Google Glass and its competitors, glasses that can detect exactly what you’re doing with your head and then respond accordingly, the clunky artificial way we navigate sites online is set to change.
But that’s all to develop in the next few years. Over the coming months, we can expect mobile devices to continue to become slicker and more responsive, particularly with tablets that use large screens and let us navigate through easy touchscreen interfaces. The future might not be quite here yet, but the present remains pretty exciting for online casino junkies.