Developer Workshop: PapayaMobile

Developer Workshop is a series of profiles exploring the current state of the mobile marketplace from the point of view of the software developers mapping out its future. Each profile focuses on a developer with a compelling story to tell, and offers their perspective on what the industry's doing right, what it's doing wrong and how to make it better. Check out our previous workshops on Shazam, InfoMedia, Viigo, Meet Now Live, Shortcovers, Pint Sized Mobile, Geodelic, Spark of Blue Software, Tarver Games, People Operating Technology, Booyah, Bolt Creative, Thwapr, Monkeyland Industries, Rocket Racing League, Vlingo and Advanced Mobile Protection.

This week FierceDeveloper profiles PapayaMobile, which offers mobile social and casual gaming services.

Given all the hype and venture capital interest swirling around startups like foursquare, Gowalla and Loopt, it's clear that location-based solutions are where the action is. Last week, PapayaMobile--an Android-focused mobile social network noted for its casual gaming and virtual currency initiatives--updated its SDK with a suite of new LBS tools, enabling its developer partners to integrate features like real-world check-ins and virtual badges into their own Android applications. No less important, PapayaMobile's new geo-centric features extend across all software incorporating its SDK, meaning the Beijing-based firm's worldwide community of over 4 million users can check-in and interact with each other regardless of which games and applications they're accessing at any particular moment in time.

PapayaMobile first released its Social SDK (as well as a related Offer SDK, targeting advertisers) in July 2010, just days after closing a Series A funding round totaling $4 million. PapayaMobile launched in 2008--co-founder and CEO Si Shen previously served as product lead for Google Beijing, beginning her stint with the digital services giant as a product manager for search and mobile advertising at its Mountain View, Calif. headquarters. The startup initially focused on games for Apple's iPhone platform but soon shifted its emphasis to Android, favoring the possibilities inherent in the Google operating system's open-source ethos. FierceDeveloper spoke to Shen about the location services craze, application discovery and the importance of app sustainability.

Si shenSi Shen on the PapayaMobile model: We founded the company with a focus on games. It's really hard for users to find applications, so we launched a social network tying all of our games together--we achieved a lot of user loyalty, and realized we could do a lot of cross-promotion and viral marketing. It's an effective way to make good content visible to consumers.

Most of our users are teenagers or people in their early 20s. Our platform promotes virtual identities and virtual currencies, and these concepts are very popular with the younger generation. They will spend money for digital goods like avatars--they want the fun stuff, and it offers them a high incentive to invite their friends to join platform. We now have more than 4 million users.

With an open platform for all developers, Android is a better platform to realize our vision, so we switched our focus from the iPhone to Android earlier this year. Most of our users are based in the U.S., but Android Market is growing fast, including abroad. We tried developing for BlackBerry and also Windows Mobile, but the user experiences on those platforms in terms of social gaming and social features are not comparable to Android, and the users we attract on those platforms are not the kind of young users we want.

Shen on improving application discovery via location: The discovery problem is very big, especially on Android. There are not many ways to promote your apps. So we decided we should open our platform to other developers, and let them use our userbase. We can help them find more users and improve discovery, and also help them drive revenues.

First we implemented standard social features, and now we're adding location, which is something that's very unique to mobile. We allow users to see their friends around them, and also some strangers--they can challenge each other, and play games with each other. Users can also see what games their friends around them are playing. These are ways for users to make more friends and more relevant friends, and they improve application stickiness.

With foursquare, users only see friends that are using foursquare. But all the applications built using our SDK share the same userbase, which is a very good way to make games visible to a huge amount of users. That's the beauty of it--all of PapayaMobile's applications are sharing the same userbase and information.

Shen on bringing location-based technology into the mainstream: Location-based services should be a function of a more comprehensive application. Location is most useful alongside other features--it shouldn't be a standalone application. It has to be adopted by a massive amount of users to be really useful--that's why if location solutions are open to a lot of developers, we can build that userbase.

Privacy is still a problem. People still don't understand these services and what kinds of information they're sharing. We have to educate consumers--they must know their location is never disclosed to strangers, and they have to opt in to all location features. Developers have to be really conscious of these issues when designing location apps, and they have to educate users. There's lot of work to be done.

Shen on advice for aspiring mobile developers: There are three things developers need to think about. First is how you want to promote your applications to make sure people find them--whether it's advertising or partnerships or some other channel. You need to be very innovative--you can't expect your application will be discovered, even if it's very good.

Second, you need to think about the monetization of your app. Is it in-app purchases? Different billing channels? There are many things you can do--you need to pick the right thing.

Third, you have to be sustainable. You see a lot of hits in the App Store and Android Market. Some of them are very popular for several days, but after two weeks, no one remembers them. Users are not loyal at all. So you have to ask yourself how you can make users loyal to the app, and how you can make it sustainable.