Top Mobile Development Platform: iPhone, Windows, Android, Blackberry?

Wednesday Jul 14th 2010 by Jeff Vance
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The leading smartphone platforms each have an array of pluses and minuses. What’s the best smartphone platform for your company?

Smartphones are entering the enterprise through the back door. This is nothing new. Plenty of technologies (laptops, WiFi, thumb drives) first caught on in consumer markets and then sneaked their way into the enterprise. Employees began using the devices for work well before organizations adapted secure usage policies and IT controls.

With an array of handsets, carriers and development platforms to deal with, the mobile enterprise today is – and will probably remain for the next two years – extremely “fragmented,” which is industry jargon for: everyone in the workplace is using different phones/devices running different operating systems.

While developers may want to bet on a platform that best matches their organizations’ business goals, chances are they’ll wind up having to eventually develop for several different mobile OSes.

Many firms are already coping with both BlackBerries and iPhones. Meanwhile, Android is starting to trickle in, and there’s a huge legacy of old Windows Mobile phones that won’t necessarily run Windows Phone 7, but could be replaced by it.

Still, most organizations don’t have the resources to tackle everything at once, so you have to start somewhere. Developers can do their due diligence and choose a “best” platform, but it’s unlikely that all of their users will be on the same OS.

To muddy the waters even further, there’s talk of how future mobile apps will all be Web-based and built on HTML 5, which will obviate this problem.

It’s an optimistic argument that looks good on paper, but when you talk to developers they’ll tell you that standardization only goes so far. For instance, different versions of Android already have different features sets built in (different things that pop up when you hit the menu key, for instance, or different ways to access the camera). While those little variations seem trivial, someone has to deal with them, and that someone is a developer.

If this seems, to quote Yogi Berra, like déjà vu all over again, you won’t be the first person to see the parallels between early smartphone fights and the dawn of the PC era. In that long ago time developers had to juggle Apple, Commodore, IBM, Microsoft and a number of other proprietary platforms.

For those of you who’ve yet to pick sides, here are today’s top mobile contenders.

1. iPhone (& iPad)

If you’re wondering why I put the iPad alongside the iPhone, it probably says as much about my predictions for the future of mobile as anything. Smartphones have already hit the mainstream. According to the most recent comScore MobileLens statistics, 49.1 million people in the U.S. owned smartphones during the three months ending in May 2010, up 8.1 percent from the corresponding February period.

Nielsen predicts that smartphones will surpass features phones in percentage sales by Q3 of 2011, representing 51 percent of the market, up from 27 percent in Q4 2009. Meanwhile, Apple boasts that it sold 3 million iPads in the first 80 days of general availability.

Call it a tablet, call it a super-duper e-book reader, call it a multimedia laptop minus the keyboard, call it what you will, but the iPad has more in common with its smartphone cousins than a laptop or desktop.

Next Page: Android

top smartphone platform, May 2010

* May data does not include Apple’s launch of iPhone 4, which became available in June. However, according to Apple, it sold 1.7 million iPhone 4’s in the first three days of availability (June24 through June 26).

Next Page: Android

A number of the mobile development firms that I spoke with for this story currently support only two platforms, and iPhone is almost always one of the two. The other platform could be BlackBerry, Windows Mobile (soon to be Phone 7) or even Android, but the common denominator is iPhone.

While many believe that the Android will eventually catch up to and surpass the iPhone, Sam Gaddis, Chief Marketing Officer for Mutual Mobile, a smartphone app development company, noted that most developers regard the iPhone as a dramatically more mature platform.

“Most of our customers come to us for iPhone and iPad development,” he said. “Android is starting to get attention, but nearly all of the successful consumer-facing Android apps were on the iPhone first.”

Mutual Mobile worked with Greenway Medical Technologies to give physicians a way to access critical patient information from their smartphones. The goal was to create a mobile tool for streamlining hospital care and reducing medical errors.

What platform did they choose?

“Something like 70% of doctors have iPhones,” Gaddis said, “so of course that was the platform we worked with.” This statistic alludes to another of the iPhone’s advantages and that is demographics. According to Nielsen, iPhone users tend to be richer than the average smartphone subscriber. Forty-percent have household incomes of $100K or more – twice the ratio among all smarthphone subscribers (19%).

The iPhone has two big drawbacks. First, there’s the Mac tax. Next, carrier choices are limited. For now, you’re stuck with AT&T, although plenty of rumors have leaked of Verizon’s plans to offer the iPhone in January 2011.

2. Android

Why on earth would I rate Android, which has a scant enterprise presence, ahead of BlackBerry or even Windows Mobile, which are much more entrenched? First, I must confess that I’m an Android subscriber and have been mostly pleased with the platform, even though I’ve been annoyed enough by a few pre-loaded Sprint apps to root the phone just to get rid of them. The ease of rooting the phone, though, I regard as a platform advantage, especially versus the iPhone, although this is arguably a major disadvantage from a security standpoint.

Second, developers seem to regard working with BlackBerry as more of a curse than an opportunity (more on this later). Third, while Windows Mobile does have a strong foothold in the enterprise, it doesn’t inspire nearly the level of loyalty or generate the excitement that both the iPhone and Android do. According to Nielsen, only 47% of Blackberry users want another Blackberry. Not good, but even worse only 34% of Windows Mobile users want another Windows Mobile device (ouch!) versus 80% of iPhone users who plan to remain loyal and 70% of Android users.

“Long-term, the enterprise will trend towards Android. The latest Android releases have made plenty updates that move towards the enterprise,” said Sam Gaddis of Mutual Mobile.

Gaddis pointed out that plenty of organizations have already favored Android over other platforms. “Sometimes it’s political and brand oriented. NASCAR, for instance, can’t do an iPhone app because of their Verizon sponsorships. But much more often, it’s a technology-related choice.”

For instance, the stop-texting apps that prevent you from texting when you’re driving require root access, so Android wins out. Another example is augmented reality. Mutual Mobile is working with a client on an AR app for IT that allows you to scan the barcode of a server in your datacenter to get an overlay of information related to the server’s health and design.

“The decision to base this project on Android was technology-driven. You could do it on the iPhone, but the AR toolset for the Android is much better, and the platform is more open,” Gaddis said.

Another Android advantage is with custom hardware. If you want to use mobile development tools for non-smartphone hardware, such as a kiosk or a custom GPS terminal, Android is regarded as a much more suitable platform than iPhone, BlackBerry or any others.

Google is well aware of this fact and intends to take advantage of it. “I think if we roll forward five years, users won’t be on any one device. They’ll use multiple devices, even multiple mobile ones,” said Rajen Sheth, Group Product Manager for Google Apps.

Sheth argues that the common denominator of computing platforms is the browser, while the engine powering more and more devices will be the cloud. “I have both an iPhone and Android, along with a Mac laptop and PC desktop. These are all completely different platforms, but I can be completely productive by going to the web-based interfaces for Gmail, Calendar and Docs.”

Even though the iPhone App Store is more mature and successful than Android Marketplace, Google believes Android will vault ahead in the near future. A recent report by Ovum backs that belief.

Apple owned the smartphone app market in 2009, dominating with 67 percent of all smartphone app downloads, even though iPhones represented only 14 percent of the overall installed base of smartphones.

Ovum believes the iPhone’s dominance will be short lived. Between 2009 and 2015, Ovum predicts that Android will increase its smartphone base from 5 percent to 18 percent and its mobile application download share from 14 percent to 26 percent, topping the projected 22 percent for Apple’s App Store.

Next Page: Windows Phone

3. Windows Phone

Brandon Watson, the Microsoft director responsible for the developer experience of Windows Phone 7, sounded like he was going to have an aneurysm when I asserted that Microsoft has dropped the ball time and time again in the mobile channel.

“We’ve shipped millions and millions of units. We and BlackBerry have both been prominent smartphone players in the enterprise for quite some time now,” he said.

Point taken, but for a company that has a history of rolling through new tech spaces like Sherman through Atlanta, Windows Mobile’s meager success pales in comparison to Windows, Office, Explorer, Server, Xbox, etc.

As recently as September of last year, Windows Mobile accounted for 19 percent of the smartphone market, according to comScore. That number dropped to 13.2 percent in May 2010. Much of the decline can be attributed to the success of Android.

More charitably, the fact that Window Phone 7 is due out at the end of the year must also be factored in. Early reports warn that Windows Phone 7 won’t be backwards compatible with Windows Mobile, so who in their right mind would invest in Windows Mobile now?

The larger point I was making to Watson is that Windows Mobile doesn’t have the “fans” that iPhone and Android have. When Nielsen finds that only 34% of Windows Mobile users want another Windows Mobile device, that number should trouble a tech giant being challenged from seemingly everyone at once.

Microsoft understands that they do indeed have a problem. “Apple did the industry a service by pioneering the app model and codifying a way for developers to make money on mobile,” Watson said. “While we have sold millions of handsets, we also realized that we had to do a hard reset on the operating system. One thing that we at Microsoft know how to do, and do well, is build operating systems.”

Watson isn’t simply peddling Microsoft propaganda. Most of the analyst, developers and even execs from rival mobile companies that I’ve spoken with in the past few months believe that Windows Phone 7 will be a strong, competitive platform.

Microsoft will have distinct advantages in being able to integrate the smartphone seamlessly with Microsoft Office, Exchange and SharePoint.

Windows Phone 7 isn’t due out until the end of the year, but the developer launch is already underway, and (small sample size aside), the early results are positive. There is definite enthusiasm for the platform.

“We’re putting pre-production phones – with a production-quality OS – in developers’ hands this month. Developers need tools and time to build apps, and we’re doing everything in our power to ensure that they’ll be successful when Windows Phone 7 launches,” Watson added.

Windows Phone 7 may well push Android aside in the enterprise. For now, Android is predominantly a consumer platform, although the updates have been slowly integrating enterprise features. What Android doesn’t have is the strong sales channel into the enterprise that Microsoft has.

Out of the box, Windows Phone 7 will have security features such as app sandboxing that will appeal to the enterprise. Windows Phone 7 will also having dormant capabilities that won’t be ready right away but that Microsoft is planning ahead for.

For instance, the platform is capable of handling true multitasking, but that feature will be turned off initially so as not to drain batteries. Apps running in the background kill battery life, so Microsoft will have to work with handset manufacturers to address that limitation. Expect that to be figured out a couple of updates down the road.

Windows Phone 7 will also follow the iPhone App Store model, rather than the wilder and woollier Android Marketplace one. “We believe in a curated market,” Watson said. “It gives you a better chance of trapping bad apps.”

Next Page: Blackberry

4. BlackBerry

Were this lineup ordered on market share alone, BlackBerry would hold the number-one ranking. Representing nearly 42 percent of the market, BlackBerry is the number one smartphone platform in the U.S. by a wide margin.

However, the platform is steadily losing market share to the iPhone and Android. According to comScore, BlackBerry’s market share shrunk by 0.4 percent for the three months ending in May 2010. To be fair, the iPhone lost ground during those months too – in fact, Android was the only platform to gain ground. With all of the hype leading up to the iPhone 4 launch, it doesn’t take a crystal ball to figure out that plenty of potential iPhone customers were simply waiting for the iPhone 4.

Even more troubling for RIM is the fact that studies like the Nielsen one referenced above show that fewer than half of all BlackBerry owners plan to purchase another BlackBerry.

With its bread and butter – strong email integration – being challenged directly by Microsoft and Android and the app model favoring the iPhone and Android, RIM has a tough road ahead.

From a developer’s standpoint too, BlackBerry gets only tough love. Mutual Mobile’s CTO, Mickey Ristroph, emailed me a concise explanation of why developing for BlackBerry is such a headache.

“On BlackBerry, there are a lot of different dimensions (OS version, device, carrier, country), so it’s analogous to developing 100 different versions of each app,” Ristroph wrote. “Whereas Android is carrier agnostic, BlackBerry is much more dependent on the carrier, especially for location-based and messaging services. That extra carrier dimension actually adds quite a bit of effort on the QA side. Imagine having to build different websites for each ISP (Time Warner, Comcast, etc,)!”

Jason Yim, CEO of the mobile development company Trigger LA concurs. Trigger develops for both iPhones and Androids and is, for now, avoiding the BlackBerry. “We looked at BlackBerry, but the app delivery system doesn’t compare favorably [to iPhone or Android]. The storefront isn’t great, and BlackBerry users are just not using apps.”

Research backs Yim’s observations. Ovum found that BlackBerry only has 5 percent of the app download market, despite accounting for nearly 42 percent of smartphones shipped.

It’s important to remember, though, that even as RIM loses market share, it will probably actually gain subscribers. Smartphones are replacing feature phones, so the big loser won’t be RIM but rather more traditional handset vendors who will be backed into the corner as new smartphone players dominate.

With a much larger overall smartphone market, even if RIM is the number four or five player, that’s still probably good enough to boost revenues. RIM also has solid a track record of giving knowledge workers exactly what they want on the handset.

For years what knowledge workers wanted was email, and even with all of the apps circulating, email and messaging are still far more important than, say, CRM or ERP apps. “People forget that 80-90 percent of email-messaging systems are on-premise,” said Tom Goguen, VP of product management at RIM. “We’ll continue to be the gold standard in that space.”

BlackBerry believes that the next important feature will be social networking, and the company is working hard to make BlackBerry a strong social networking platform. BlackBerry also intends to correct its app failings with what they call “Super Apps,” which is basically a set of developer tools that ensures that BlackBerry apps can be easily mashed.

“Having CRM on the go is interesting,” Goguen said. “Having it show up in your calendar is better. Having it connect seamlessly to LinkedIn is better still.”

Next Page: Mobile wildcards, Symbian, Palm WebOS

5. Wildcards

As I’ve said many times before, if this were a European-based site, I’d be negligent if I didn’t include Symbian. I’m not so sure I need to even say that anymore. Ovum found that Symbian “commanded a 49% share of the smartphone installed base but only generated an estimated 9% of the total applications downloads market” in 2009.

Symbian seems to be plagued by some of the same troubles as BlackBerry, and has yet to have any success here in the U.S.

Palm WebOS needs to be mentioned in passing, if only to point out that the HP acquisition has at least bought the platform some time.

Another wildcard developers must consider is the carrier. A smartphone’s success depends nearly as much on the carrier as the smartphone platform. For instance, even as iPhone prices drop, the fact that it is tethered to one of the most expensive carriers keeps it out of reach for many consumers (not that this is necessarily a bad thing).

Finally, standards need to be factored in. According to Dominique Hazael-Massieux, a staff member at W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) and a founding of the W3C’s Mobile Web Initiative (MWI), Web technologies such as HTML 5 are a pretty good starting point for mobile developers.

“The mobile Web is usable on pretty much all mobile devices nowadays. . . and you don’t need anybody’s approval or review to create, deploy and update a mobile Web application,” he said. “The review process required by a number of platforms makes it hard or impossible to adapt for applications that require privacy- or security-sensitive data.”

Since most businesses already have some kind of in-house authorization mechanism, it isn’t difficult to apply those mechanisms to Web-based mobile applications. Moreover, the cost of developing a mobile Web site is usually much less than developing a native app, let alone a native app for each of an organization’s supported smartphones.

There are drawbacks to this approach, of course. For instance, Web-based mobile apps don’t necessarily have access to as many features as native applications.

Even as standards improve, though, don’t expect all of these platforms to play well together. They never do. Handsets, mobile Web browsers and smartphone development platforms will continue to be fragmented, and even if standardization solves 80-90 percent of cross-platform development issues (which is extremely optimistic) that remaining 10-20 percent could trip up your development plans or force you to bring in yet another set of developers to tackle mobile middleware.

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