Nicaragua joins ‘app revolution’

40 Nicaraguan programmers participated in CLARO’s recent app contest to discover local techie talent—that’s more programmers than anyone guessed existed here. First in a two-part series on Nicaragua’s Internet revolution

Nicaragua may be a latecomer to the digital revolution, but a group of innovative self-taught computer programmers is starting to put this low-tech country on the map of mobile apps.

Over the past year, a small but growing generation of tech-savvy Nicaraguans has started to develop their own software applications for smartphones and tablets. Driven by curiosity and ingenuity, these young Nicaraguan programmers have taught themselves how to write source code by reading techie blogs, watching YouTube tutorials, and doing Google searches.

“Google is the best professor when it comes to learning code,” says Paulo McNally, a 25-year-old programmer who dropped out of a computer programming course at Managua’s Universidad del Valle because he felt he could learn more on his own. “I can ask Google questions at one o’clock or two o’clock in the morning, and it never says it doesn’t have time.”

The problem with relying on the Internet for training is that most of the new information about coding and programming is published in English. Technology is evolving so quickly that Spanish-language translations haven’t caught up yet.

Paulo McNally is presented with a check, a Notebook HP Pavilion and Samsung Galaxy tablet for winning second place in the app contest.

“Ninety percent of the information online is in English, and I don’t understand English so I have to try to translate everything into Spanish,” says McNally, who recently built an app for Android that lets users check Nicaragua movie listings at Managua cinemas. “But it’s either that or learn Chinese.”

Others say English is just another hurdle to overcome on the road to technological innovation in the country with the lowest Internet connectivity rate in Central America.

“I have to look up a lot of words, but I can’t allow English to be an impediment to learning,” echoes fellow programmer Stalin Vladimir Gómez, a 20-year-old self-taught techie from Estelí who is developing an Android app to promote Nicaraguan tourism destinations. “By the time programming information is translated into Spanish, there’s already a new generation of technology available.”

Becoming a techie in a low-tech country

The global app revolution started in 2007, when Apple introduced the first iPhone with its touch-screen user interface and ability to download mobile applications from the Apple Store. Four years later, the Apple Store surpassed 10 billion app downloads. As the iPhone—now in its sixth generation—reshaped the smartphone industry, the app market has taken on a life of its own, spawning a new generation of strange addictive behaviors, such as killing cartoon pigs with exploding birds fired from a slingshot.

An app for every occasion (photo/ Tim Rogers)

Today there are hundreds of thousands of apps for any occasion you can think of, and many situations you’ve never considered. There are practical apps that let you find your missing iPhone by whistling for it, to worthless, brain-dead apps that record how long you can hold your finger still on the touchscreen. There are innocent, playful apps that let you entertain your cat with a cartoon mouse that runs around on the screen of your phone, and malevolent, wrath-of-God apps that let you to wipeout the entire human civilization by evolving a deadly, global plague. Many apps are free, while others can be downloaded onto your phone or tablet for as little as $.99, generating a multi-billion global industry.

The first generation of Nicaraguan-made apps is more rudimentary and practical than some of the zombie-apocalypse simulators currently available in the iTunes Store. But they make sense for Nicaragua’s reality.

The first Nicaraguan-made app was developed for La Prensa in 2011. El Nuevo Diario came out with its newspaper app last December, and quickly got 5,000 downloads. Nicaragua’s Central Bank and all the private banks all have their own mobile apps. And one foreign-owned tour operator has created an app for Nicaragua’s tourism industry. But so far, the list isn’t much longer than that.

Part of the problem is that Apple apps need to be built on a different operating system, known as iOS, which is still virtually unknown in Nicaragua. Almost all of the first-generation of Nicaraguan-made apps are for Android phones.

Christian Torres, a 26-year-old programmer from Managua, was the first person in the country to design an iOS mobile application for Apple products. He developed the iPhone apps for La Prensa and Central Bank when he was working at Guegue Comunicaciones and his team, Clov3r Labs, recently developed the Android and iOS app for El Nuevo Diario. Currently, they’re working on a new app to help smartphone users locate bus stops in Managua. Once that is completed, Torres says he hopes to work with Managua’s Municipal Institute of Public Transportation (Intrama) to institute a GPS system that will allow smart phone users to track the movement of busses and know when each bus is scheduled to arrive at its corresponding stops.

So far, Clov3r doesn’t have much competition in Nicaragua. Marcalabs is the only other company in the country that is currently developing mobile apps. Marcalabs recently came out with its first iOS app called QuestionUp, an application to help users brainstorm solutions to tough questions in work or life.

The challenges to catching up with the world

The birth of the first generation of Nicaraguan-made apps wasn’t exactly a watershed moment for the digital revolution, but it is a testament to the perseverance and resourcefulness of the Nicaraguan programs who built them.  

In a country where only 10% of the population is connected to the Internet, Nicaraguan programmers have cleared a lot of hurdles to get to a point where they can start building their own mobile applications.

McNally and Gómez, both of whom got their introduction to the World Wide Web by connecting to computers in cyber cafes near their homes, spent their rented Internet hours investigating techie blogs and exploring the unknown world of source coding, while most of their friends were fiddling on Facebook, gamming, or sneaking peeks at porno sites.

“The Internet is a double-edge sword; you can use it to find lots of information and learn, but it can also be a huge distraction that doesn’t do anything to help development,” says Gómez. “Lots of students see the Internet just as a tool for social networking and not as an investigative tool to learn more about your field of study or to develop your professional profile.”

It’s also a problem of access, Gómez says. Most university students don’t have money to pay for Internet connections at home, which means most youths are connecting to the Web through their cellphones. While advances in 3G and 4G cellphone technology in Nicaragua has made the Internet available to many users who otherwise wouldn’t be able to connect at all, navigating the Web through a cellphone lends itself more to social networking than serious investigations, Gómez notes.

 To provide more incentives for young programmers such as McNally and Gómez, CLARO, the country’s leading cellphone and Internet provider, recently held a nationwide app contest to discover the best local talent.

Surprisingly, a total of 40 young Nicaraguans participated in the contest, which offered $10,000 in prizes as well as tablets and notebooks with free 4G connections for a year. McNally and Gómez finished second and third, respectively.

“Nicaragua has not been left behind in the use of technology, thanks to CLARO’s mobile 4G network,” said José Anel Cruvelier, marketing director for CLARO. “The use of apps has been growing rapidly and now (Nicaragua) has people who are very capable of developing applications that are useful for the private and public sector.”

The e-commerce conundrum

While the first generation of Nicaraguan programmers are starting to break into the world of apps, monetizing their product has nearly impossible. E-commerce, the buying and selling of products and services online, is still in its infancy in Nicaragua. Even PayPal, which allows users in 110 countries to send and receive money, won’t allow Nicaraguans to receive money (Nicaraguans can open a PayPal account, but only to buy things online in other countries).

Restrictions on e-commerce have made it difficult for Nicaraguans such McNally and Gómez to receive any type of remuneration for their innovations; both men, and the other 38 programmers who participated in CLARO’s contest, are limited to making their apps available for free download.

“The lack of e-commerce in Nicaragua makes it difficult,” McNally says. “So far, we can only do this type of work for free.”

While the iTunes Store would theoretically allow Nicaraguan programmers to sell Apple-approved apps, the cost and technology hurdle is much higher to get into that world, Torres explains.

“First of all you need a Mac computer, which is much more expensive than a PC. And then you need to buy a $99 developer’s license every year that allows you to access the platform for the iTunes Store,” Torres says.

Despite the obstacles, Nicaraguans are starting to get in the game, Torres says.

“In 2011, there were only four or five of us who were developing apps, but now the bubble has started to grow,” Torres says. “Like technology, this is going to advance quickly now that it has begun.”

Next: Part II: online sex shop helps pioneer e-commerce in Nicaragua