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Mobile More Important than Ever

Mobile phones poised to overtake PCs by 2013

BY PEGGY ALBRIGHT

By 2013, mobile phones will overtake PCs as the most-common Web access device worldwide. As the shift to a mobile-centric computing world accelerates, developers will find greater need to distribute their products and services via mobile platforms, whether they are pursuing projects on behalf of the companies they work for or innovating on their own.

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For those who haven’t begun creating a mobile development strategy, it’s time to begin, according to the research firm Gartner. Enterprises, in particular, should get started. They should assume that every worker their IT department supports will become more mobile in the next three months. The shift to a mobile-centric way of accessing the web is also forcing a fundamental reconsideration of business-to-consumer communications strategies, as consumers become increasingly comfortable accessing retail information or business services, like banking, from their mobile devices.

Certainly the trends are convincing, but not everybody is familiar with mobile platforms. Here’s a rundown of some of the most important considerations and rules of thumb that will influence the success of a mobile application or service development project.

Strategic planning is necessary

The mobile sector has always been complicated by fragmentation, and as smartphones become the norm, the increasing selection and range of application development platforms is making this market even more complicated to serve. Each platform has its own rules of engagement, customer characteristics, and market reach, and each of these considerations will affect an app development strategy.

“This whole business of understanding who your customers are, where they are and what they carry is critically important,” said Nick Jones, a vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner.

Jones encourages companies and developers to survey their customers to determine which platform or platforms to support. Keep in mind that usage characteristics in the US may not reflect usage in other countries.

Monitor the platform wars

According to various studies, roughly 25 percent of US mobile phone customers now have smartphones and it won’t be long before smartphones become the dominant type of mobile phone used.

Right now, the RIM BlackBerry is the most popular smartphone in the US, offering the greatest number of potential mobile application users. But iPhone consumers are the most compulsive adopters of mobile apps, so this platform offers the best potential sales opportunity for developers. On the other hand, the iPhone’s position is under attack. Until recently the second-ranked platform in the US, it has just been unseated by Android, the newest OS, which is selling at a faster pace these days. Android users will likely represent compulsive application users too, which makes this platform worth considering for any developer looking to the future for popular enabling technologies.

The platform market is highly region-dependent, so an app developed to sell in one country may not sell in another. The Symbian OS, used in Nokia phones, dominates smartphone platforms worldwide, but it has little influence in the US. Symbian is followed in the international market by RIM’s BlackBerry, the iPhone, Windows Mobile, and then Android.

The global platform market is changing quickly. According to Gartner forecasts, Symbian will continue to dominate the mobile platform market internationally for the next several years, keeping a substantial advantage in market share into 2013. But by then a shakeup for second-place will occur when Android takes over the No. 2 slot to push the iPhone OS into third place. RIM will be fourth and Microsoft’s Windows, which now has several mobile OSes, will fall to fifth, where it will find competition from the Linux-based MeeGo approach, which Nokia will be using in high-end devices. The webOS, now owned by HP with its acquisition of Palm, is likely to remain a niche platform.

Platform advantages and disadvantages

Not all development environments are created equal, and smartphone platforms have varying requirements that can influence an enterprise’s or individual developer’s mobile development strategy.

For example, it’s easier to write applications for the Apple and Android platforms than, say, the RIM BlackBerry environment, which is “a formidable platform,” said John Puterbaugh, founder and CEO of Nellymoser, which offers an established, carrier-grade service-delivery platform that enterprises such as Audible.com, Amazon’s audio book business, have used to extend their services to mobile devices.

Puterbaugh says that any company that wants to develop an application for enterprises or consumers in the US “must consider RIM” because of its market reach, despite its challenges. Not only is it used in the enterprise, it’s heavily promoted to the consumer segment. Verizon Wireless, for example, is practically giving BlackBerry phones away, with a service contract, to encourage adoption by consumers.

Open or closed?

Developers must also decide if they want to work in an “open” or “closed” development environment. Apple, for example, has made its name synonymous with the concept of a closed system, considering the well-known development, distribution, and quality controls it exerts on its developers. And it has just made its terms even more restrictive with the latest release of its OS 4, which requires the use of Apple-approved tools as part of its strategy to prevent software like Adobe Flash from working on its applications.

On the other hand, developers who work with Apple also have the assurance that their products, once completed, will have a high level of quality and good user experience.

The Android OS, which was created in part to create a more open approach to application development and distribution, has already fallen into a fragmentation trap, with the OS implemented variously by different handset manufacturers and operators and each offering its own app store in addition to the generalized Android Market.

App stores and monetization

Thanks to the iPhone, it seems like everyone today knows what an “app” is, and that is good for developers. Last year, consumers downloaded about 2.4 billion apps from smartphone app stores, according to ABI Research. That download rate will increase for a few more years until 2013, when it will peak at around 7 billion as users begin using more apps that are pre-loaded on devices or accessing apps and services built on web standards that are available through regular websites.

But getting your app distributed through an app store doesn’t necessarily make you rich. Just a very small fraction of the available apps are driving the most demand. Further, the Apple-originated monetization model used by most platforms now has created a downward pricing pressure. Typically, the application platform will give developers a 30 percent cut of revenues, but with apps selling for 99 cents it’s hard to make real money from sales.

A recent study by Evans Data found that 80% of developers in North America believe they should receive more than 30% of app sales revenues. Consequently, only 15% of developers prefer distributing their apps through app stores. More than half prefer selling their apps directly to end users or enterprises.

Tools for Smartphone App Store Applications

In the last year or so, due to the popularity of smartphone apps, dozens of new companies have emerged to offer tools for writing consumer apps for distribution through app stores. Gartner’s Nick Jones has identified seven categories of these tools, including single-platform software-development kits; cross-platform SDKs or tools; cross-platform high-level tools; template-oriented generators; application-specific tools; content-oriented tools; and on-device portals.

While some stand out from the others—Nokia’s Qt and the Adobe Flash Player 10.1, for example, are two cross-platform tools that will likely find particular value in the market—some of the tools and the companies offering them will come and go.

“It’s an anarchic world out there and will remain fairly chaotic because of the range of platforms and tools for years to come,” Jones said.

He urges companies that are evaluating development tools for consumer-facing app stores to consider their tool choices carefully, particularly if they are intended for long-term corporate use. Decision drivers, he suggest, should include the expected life span of the application; the strategic importance of the app; time to market; expected need to change the application; the sophistication of the user experience; if the expected business model might require some tools or make others unacceptable; and which developer skills are needed.

Native apps versus the Web

A final question developers should consider, Puterbaugh advises, is whether the concept of apps will continue into the future or whether the increased ability of mobile devices to access the web will make apps irrelevant.

Today, a better experience can be provided to the end user if the product is written as native app, given the range of processors and OSes available. But an application that is written to run via a browser can offer the flexibility to run across various devices.

“From a consumer point of view, I think the apps are here to stay,” Puterbaugh said. “People will buy something that’s been packaged as an app, even if it is a web page on the back end, because it’s a constrained piece of content or service that can be segmented and sold as opposed to pinging a URL.”

An enterprise app such as a mobile banking product, on the other hand, would more appropriately pursue a browser-based experience to gain the benefit of working on various devices.

It all gets back to understanding the end user, Puterbaugh says. And that includes understanding what platforms they will use and the functionality you want to offer. CW (14 June, 2010)

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