One of the most common debates among smart phone cognoscenti is which platform will prevail — BlackBerry, Symbian, iPhone, Microsoft, or the latest entrant Android? Common thought is that the platform with the most developers will win, and currently that’s iPhone. Many folks, however, having drunk the “open” kool-aid, believe that ultimately Android must win. Others point to the dominant market share already garnered by RIM in North America, and Symbian in other parts of the world, and say that developers will flock to those platforms by virtue of the fact that they represent the largest monetizable market.
So who’s right?
Commercial developers are looking for three things when they choose a platform. These are:
- A large and well defined market.
- An efficient channel to reach that market.
- A low cost to develop products for that market.
If you look at the history of the PC market, Microsoft’s Windows had all of those characteristics. The PC market was large and well defined, Microsoft and it’s partners created retail channels to deliver products, the Windows SDK’s were cheap, and Windows was sufficiently well developed that it made the job of develop for the platform efficient, fast, and inexpensive.
In the world of mobile operating systems, although SDK’s were cheap, until now the channel to market was the carrier, and a multitude of platforms and form factors drove costs up. Things have been changing, but the lessons haven’t been internalized by all the vendors yet.
Let’s look at the top players in the market today – BlackBerry, Android and iPhone.
- The largest market.
- The channel to reach the market is unclear, however. BlackBerry AppWorld is a good thing, but developers can still choose to go with the carrier store, or distribute directly. Choice is good, isn’t it? Unfortunately no. From a customer perspective having to search for an application in multiple locations is a poor experience.
- The cost to develop for the BlackBerry market is driven up substantially by the plethora of form factors, and the differing versions of the operating systems on the handset. It’s common for BlackBerry’s sold to AT&T to have a different version of the OS than BlackBerry’s sold to Rogers or Orange, despite the fact that the model number may be the same. The test matrix for BlackBerry is daunting except for the largest commercial developers.
- A nascent market, but potentially very large.
- Like BlackBerry, Android has multiple stores available to it. Again, paradoxically, channel choice does not necessarily make for a good customer experience or an efficient way for a developer to get to market.
- Like BlackBerry, Android devices are anything but uniform. As open source, vendors can choose any form factor, and combination of features. All of this makes for a headache for software developers.
- A large market, although not the largest.
- A single store, making for a very well defined and efficient way to market, as well as an easy experience for the customer. Developers products have a better change of being found by the customer on the AppStore.
- Low cost to develop. iPhone and iPod touch have essentially the same operating system, and most users upgrade to the latest version quickly via iTunes. Platform homogeneity means that developers can count on a given set of features being available, and execute against a single test platform. Costs are dramatically lower as a result.
The homogeneity of the iPhone platform and channel is a huge advantage from a developers perspective. As a result of the low cost associated with developing for iPhone, we should expect that developers will target iPhone first with new products. If products are successful there, then expect to see them ported to other leading platforms.
And if you’re RIM or Google, perhaps it’s time to rethink elements of your strategy that drive costs for developers up. Otherwise, innovation will flourish on the iPhone platform, and Apple will garner dominant share as a result.