Friday, March 20, 2009

A Platform Pickle For Mobile App Developers

Smart phones get their genius from the operating system, which turn these handsets into mobile computers that can process a host of complex applications.

Nowadays there are at least eight major operating systems - Symbian OS, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, iPhone OS, Linux, Palm OS, BREW and Google Android — each with different standards and specifications.

This has developers of smart-phone applications facing a crucial decision: Should they build an application solely for one or two major mobile platforms like the iPhone and Android, or should they spend the extra effort and money to make sure the app works across multiple operating systems?

If Dow Jones’ Wireless Innovations conference is any indication, some venture capitalists investing in wireless companies are sharply divided on which path to take.

On the opening panel of the conference Tuesday, wireless industry analyst Mark Lowenstein of Mobile Ecosystem outlined the quandary many start-ups are facing: “A lot of developers are having to make bets, choosing one or two platforms and seeing how it goes,” he said. “But as a result, the market potential gets distributed - even the most successful apps in the iPhone app store reach 20% of iPhone users, or 1% of the market where the iPhone is available….So we’re still in this experimental stage.”

That fired up Accel Partners’ Rich Wong, who bluntly stated that there will never be a “silver bullet that says that one programming environment will deliver apps to all the handsets. That’s a false hope and if you’re waiting for that to happen you’ll be waiting an infinite amount of time.”

Instead, Wong said, developers should consider the subset of handsets that deliver the best experience for the application. If, for instance, a start-up is building an enterprise application, it perhaps should choose the BlackBerry and those devices using the Symbian and Windows Mobile operating systems, he said.

Later in the day, on the closing panel, Shasta Ventures Managing Director Robert Coneybeer stated his firm is not fully interested in wireless applications until there’s a standard mobile platform in which developers can build into. “We think the iPhone and Android are really driving a wedge in the industry, and companies that focus on one or two platforms can really win…the successful start-ups that break out are the ones that focus on a few key platforms.”

This ignited a debate between Coneybeer and another panelist, Shawn Carolan, a managing director at Menlo Ventures, who believes developers should consider as many platforms as needed to scale a business. “I don’t believe these apps can be that viral if they’re tied to one platform,” he said. “And I don’t see how one platform is going to win over time.”

He cited one of his firm’s portfolio companies, TeleNav, which has hundreds of developers working on application porting, allowing the start-up’s app to deliver graphical turn-by-turn driving directions on several hundred handsets across six operating systems. “So someone like AT&T who wants to solve navigation as a problem for all of their subs can go to one company for that,” Carolan said.

Coneybeer held his ground. “Our [firm's] underlying theme is that there will be only a few platforms that will matter,” he said. “Just follow the developer activity on the iPhone and you’ll see it’s got 20 to 30 times more activity than any other platform. You don’t hear about the Windows Mobile meet-up where people say, ‘Hey, let’s get together, drink beer and talk about writing Symbian or Windows applications.’”

“Yeah, there are only 13 million iPhone handsets out there, but when you take that and multiply that times the amount of usage, you’re talking about much bigger market share. And at least what we’re seeing, developers are employing a strategy for the iPhone plus something else…I actually think it’s possible the iPhone is under-hyped.”

By Scott Austin


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