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Opinion

Mobile applications development - out of WAC?
Rob Bamforth By: Rob Bamforth, Principal Analyst, Quocirca
Published: 22nd February 2010
Copyright Quocirca © 2010
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Mobile application development is full of hard choices. Although there is a seemingly insatiable appetite for ever-smarter handheld mobile devices and the applications these enable, developers have to decide which subset of the available mobile market they want to write applications for, in order to get a worthwhile and profitable return for their effort.

At one time it seemed like there might have been some uniformity and a common platform might emerge, but most attempts have faltered, and ultimately fallen short of the ideal they set out to achieve—SIM toolkit (too simple), WAP (too telco), Java (too fragmented), Symbian (too European?). None of these approaches were directly at fault. They simply satisfied a set of needs at a moment in time in the evolution of mobile devices that made the best of prevailing hardware and network limitations. The problem for each of them has been the speed of evolution of mobile capability.

True, handheld mobile devices are still limited by screen size and the lack of a ‘real' keyboard, and despite continual improvements in wireless data transmission technology, there will not be as much bandwidth radiated over air waves as that channelled down copper wires or glass pipes.

There are already plenty of handheld devices with bright readable screens capable of fast and watchable video, 3D graphics and the potential for 3DTV/video in the near future. Touch screens, haptics (buzz) feedback, accelerometers, compasses, GPS now augment the input options and user interfaces of increasing numbers of devices. Most have decent audio capability, many for music and ringtones, and of course they should all have decent enough audio for phone use (although this is not always the case as early BlackBerry and Apple users opined). The functionality is in place for some fantastic 'killer' applications and for smart developers to exploit.

However there is little uniformity as hardware manufacturers strive to get the best out of their devices and network operators do likewise with their networks and the tweaks they often demand from the handset providers. There is still, too, an industry propensity towards overly proprietary tendencies, something that was mostly beaten out of the IT industry in the 1990s as the internet and associated open protocols and standards took hold.

What many in the mobile industry fail to recognise is that real momentum stems from a wide swell of common interest, rather than the generally chaotic shoves of narrow vested interests. In spite of this, the mobile operator community are (again) having an attempt to pull things together through the Wholesale Applications Community initiative. A creditable concept, although it could appear a bit like a nervous reaction to Apple's success with its App Store, and the other efforts of hardware companies, from Nokia to BlackBerry and Samsung, rather than some groundbreaking idea.

The initiative has, on the face of it, a very significant group of operators lined up in support and, between them, they account for over 3 billion subscribers worldwide. These operators and their industry body, the GSMA, can help push towards common standards, closer links between fixed and mobile and perhaps common platforms for mobile applications. All good stuff, especially if the hardware manufacturers line up to standardise too, although some will see this as a loss of differentiation.

The real issue is, what do developers do in the meantime? Harmonisation towards a 'precious few' rather than an unwieldy handful of mobile platforms might help their long term cross platform and portability challenges, but, right now, developers needs to be able to create applications that will sell in large enough numbers to pay the bills. It is not simply a matter of being able to develop for a platform, or even an easy way to download and sell—there has to be user appeal, and in large enough numbers of them for developers to cost effectively reach.

That means technically taking advantage of the 'cool stuff' that users want—in whatever 'fruit'-named box it appears—across as many subscribers' handsets that are out there now, not just those that will be ready to ship 'in time for Christmas'. Also, from a commercial perspective, developers will need to be able to charge enough to recoup their effort—which is always greater if more platforms and differences have to be traversed—and not pay too great a 'tax' to online stores, whether these are operator led or not.

In short, the mobile industry, and the operator community in particular, needs to recognise that its success is dependent on the success of the broader ecosystem, and the big fish need to stop trying to eat up the food of the little ones. For more thoughts on stimulating the mobile applications market, download Quocirca's free paper regarding Mobile Application Momentum.

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Published by: IT Analysis Communications Ltd.
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