Mobile Tech

Mobile App Development: So Many Choices, So Few Guarantees

With the rise of connected devices, mobile app developers are now center stage — but juggling all the operating systems and form factors is an increasingly difficult act to perform. The challenge is to deliver a crowd-pleasing moneymaker without tearing the tent down.

“The fragmentation of the app space is only just beginning,” Trevor Doerksen, CEO of MoboVivo, told TechNewsWorld. “For developers, the opportunities and the challenges will pale the past computer paradigm.”

Indeed, the opportunities are growing faster than developers can count them — but so are the challenges.

“The application landscape has moved beyond the mobile phone to a wide variety of connected devices including TVs, set-top boxes and car navigation systems, giving developers and content providers the opportunity to reach a broader range of users,” Ivan Dwyer, global alliances manager at Access Systems Americas, told TechNewsWorld.

“With the explosion of apps, it is becoming increasingly difficult for developers to make their apps stand out from the crowd,” added Dwyer, “and revenue models have yet to be proven on a grand scale.”

One for the Money, Two for the Show

Mobile app developers largely choose a mobile OS or two as targets. In many cases, this still entails testing and debugging on a multitude of phone handsets — however, many of the challenges are thus controlled within a limited range.

“Unlike developers targeting the laptop market, mobile app developers must decide among multiple mobile OSes to target,” Chris Hazelton, research director of mobile and wireless at the 451 Group, told TechNewsWorld.

However, it isn’t as simple as choosing the biggest in the pack.

“Going after the largest market of mobile application users is not always the easiest route,” warned Hazelton.

Worse, targeting the biggest player can leave a developer dead on the field.

The Worm in Apple

Apple is the benchmark for app developers at the moment, as its app store has already achieved critical mass. The natural inclination, then, is to target the iPhone — and by extension, the iPad.

“Apple’s approval process to get into the App Store can be a mysterious one with little feedback from them, and they make no guarantees about how long your app will sit in the queue waiting to get reviewed,” Andy Gilbertson, vice president of marketing at PerBlue, a mobile game developer, told TechNewsWorld.

“When we released the latest version of ‘Parallel Kingdom,’ we tried to allot enough time for Apple’s approval process, but it ends up being a guessing game and we guessed wrong,” he said. “As a result, our Android version hit the market nearly two weeks before the Apple version was approved.”

In a game like “Parallel Kingdom” — a real-time, persistent game world — two weeks is a lifetime.

“Many of our Apple players became very frustrated that Android users were getting such a huge head start, and I’m sure we lost some players as a result,” Gilbertson concluded.

The Dice in Droid

Despite wide reports of discontent with Apple’s process, developers aren’t likely to ditch the platform anytime soon — particularly not with the advent of the instantly popular iPad and Apple’s presence in the connected living room. In this regard, Apple is uniquely positioned to tie everything together in a connected device nirvana for users — or at the very least, Apple is positioned to reap first advantage.

Some developers even find Apple’s path easier than competing platforms.

“The thing that makes Apple so frustrating is also what makes them so great to develop for,” Brad Waller, vice president of business development at Epage, told TechNewsWorld.

“Apple’s control and limitations mean that we don’t have a plethora of form factors and operating systems to worry about. We can proof all our apps by buying a total of three total devices,” he explained.

“By comparison, Apple’s competitors have multiple devices with different screen resolutions and operating systems,” said Waller. “The combinations are boggling and nearly impossible to test and debug.”

“There are so many Android devices that it is just nor practical to buy them all and test apps for all possible cases,” he said.

Android’s fragmentation — with its current four different released versions: 1.5, 1.6, 2.0, 2.1 and a new 2.2 on the way — will continue, predicts a recent IDC report.

Potential ports of Android onto media tablets, set-top boxes and connected CE will likely fragment Android even further, says the report, given that OEM implementations of Android can substantially differ.

“Multiple app developers have also noted to IDC recently that it appears that Google is pulling back on Android development efforts, and leaving it to device OEMs to further innovate — which means additional fragmentation and associated app developer costs,” the report notes.

Still, Android is no slouch as a competitor; Google is an undisputed master at all things Web, and mobile app development is on a collision course with the Internet.

App vs. Net

While operating systems and smartphone form factors can widely vary, there is one constant among them: the browser. HTML5 support is emerging in many mobile browsers in preparation for a new wave of cross-platform development.

“Upcoming HTML standards like HTML5 will allow more mobile specific features to be accessible — like local databases and geo-services — and won’t require a native app,” Isaac Mosquera, cofounder and chief technical officer at PointAbout, told TechNewsWorld.

“So, a good strategy is to develop native applications for the platforms which have the biggest ROI, such as Android and Apple, and then develop a Web-based app for other platforms,” he said.

App Store Consolidation?

Beyond the multiple-platforms muddle, likely changes in revenue-sharing will be the biggest challenge facing developers.

“For some markets — BlackBerry, iPhone, Android — the developer only shares application sales revenues with one other party,” explained 451 Group’s Hazelton. “Carriers are also interested in sharing this revenue, which could further pressure the margins for developers.”

However, there is a more worrisome movement afoot to threaten developers.

The Wholesale Applications Community is a group of industry players that includes the GSMA, many major carriers, and a few device vendors that don’t have prominent application stores.

“This group wants to provide a single location for applications to reside independent of OSes,” said Hazelton.

“While this could create a large market for mobile applications,” he said, “the revenue is shared across more players, threatening to reduce the share for developers.”

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