Mobile usage and more specifically smartphone usage, represents a unique opportunity for application developers and brand owners alike to generate new revenue and brand awareness. The combination of always on Internet 3G, GPS and portability, means that consumers are increasingly turning to their smartphones for business, shopping and leisure activities. Unlike open platforms such as the Internet, smartphones are separated by a range of operating systems, handsets and carrier support.
Market share Trends
The mobile operating systems to target are Apple’s iPhone OS 3.0, RIM’s Blackberry 4.6+ and Google’s Android. These are the largest growing mobile OS platforms; others such as Symbian and Windows Mobile are experiencing slower growth in market share and also suffer from platform “fragmentation”, further lowering their effective market share. Of all the competing operating systems, only the iPhone / iPod Touch allows for near universal application development.
The Risk of Fragmentation
Software fragmentation simply put, is the incompatibility that arises from software that starts from a common codebase and over time through updates and revisions, forks into multiple sets of unique code. A non-tech example would be the English language; today there are numerous dialects of English around the world. Some are easily recognizable, while others are beyond comprehension without a translation. Fragmentation, makes it impossible to create one version of an application per platform, instead the developer needs to craft multiple versions, each one tailored to a specific device or operating system.
There is significant platform fragmentation with non Apple devices, notably the Blackberry OS, with a large roster of legacy devices such as the blackberry 8100, 8700 and 8800 families. For example the Blackberry Storm 2 runs os5.0, has a touchscreen, accelerometerc and Open GL for 3d graphics. The Blackberry Bold 9700 however, launched at the same time uses the traditional keyboard / non touch screen layout, does not include Open GL support and uses a different screen resolution. Things are potentially worse with Google’s Android, due to its open source nature and lack of standardized models. Each manufacturer can build a totally unique Android phone running on a variety of OS versions, ranging from Android 1.5, 1.6, 2.0, 2.0.1, and 2.1.
The iPhone line can be drawn into three main groupings; the original iPhone, the iPod Touch and the iPhone 3GS. The vast majority of software written for the platform will run on the original iphone, except for applications that use the compass, MMS, or GPS. The iPod Touch does not have a camera, so any app that needs a camera will not function. The iphone 3GS is the newest model and is becoming the baseline model for app developers, especially those utilizing live video and location based services.
When developing native apps for the Blackberry, the largest pool of compatible devices are the Blackberry Curve 8300, 8900 and the 8500 series, followed by the Bold 9000, Bold 9700 and the Blackberry Tour.
Android OS has a large number of devices, but models marketed under “with Google” can be thought of as reference phones with common specifications and functionality. The T-Mobile MyTouch 3G, T-Mobile G1, Sprint Samsung Moment, all fall in this category. HTC’s customized Android devices are also popular; these include the HTC Hero and the Verizon Droid Eris.
App development tools
Types of apps to create
On the iPhone, the majority of apps currently available are games; they can range from Adobe Flash games ported with minimal functionality to full 3d games using Unity 3d. Outside of games, many iPhone apps are mobile extensions of websites utilizing open API’s. Examples include Tweetie 2 using the Twitter API, and Insight, which provides two-way syncing with Basecamp. These apps can be built by single person / small teams and do not need custom designed artwork or interfaces. Today’s independent game developers are being obscured by large studios with 3D artists, modelers and programmers with access to brand name IP’s.
The majority of non gaming apps are complex widgets that communicate with 3rd party API’s and follow Apple interface guidelines reducing the need for graphic artists.Android roughly parallels the iphone in with games being the most popular downloads followed by general interest apps. Blackberry apps are primarily business applications such as Poynt, with fewer games on the platform compared to Apple and Google’s offerings.
Currently, technology such as augmented reality, which overlays internet data, live camera feeds and GPS into a seamless experience, will begin to mature in the next year and become mainstream. Apps that utilize the camera to read barcodes for price comparisons will also gain prominence. This article hopefully has given you a clearer understanding of the smartphone market and their associated ecosystems. Currently, web developers have been on the sidelines waiting for tools to mature and leverage their web based skills.