At the phone races: picking a winner

By KENT SHARKEY 08/01/2011 12:13:05 AM

Well, Windows Phone 7.5 (aka "Mango") is off to the races — er developers — which means that the three main smartphone operating systems are basically at feature parity now[1], so perhaps one should start thinking about which one(s) to target.

For many people, the answer is obvious. However, I see at least three obvious answers, and perhaps a few that are less obvious.

Go with the iFlow

According to Nielsen, the iPhone is the single largest manufacturer of smart phones in the US (see graph below: you might have to turn your monitor 90° to understand it fully). They have the largest app store, a ... hmm ... dedicated following, good branding and marketing, and so on. People are already lining up for the iPhone 5, and many say they want to buy an iPhone 5 sight unseen. Who wouldn't want to target that market? Well, apart from the relatively closed and insular world of the Apple device, programming for the iPhone is different. Not functional programming different, but it does require one to learn Objective-C [2]. It doesn't have a huge learning curve — it's all ones and zeros and semi-colons after all — but you do need to keep that in mind if you want to go that way. Oh, and there's that whole XCode difference to deal with as well.

Nielsen Smart Phone Share (US 2011)

You will be assimilated

At 38% of the market (see above graphic), Android is the most popular smart phone OS in the US right now. Obviously the Canadian market will be different, but I'll keep using these numbers for now. [3] So, the argument would go, if you want to target the most users, you develop for Android. Add to that the main language for writing Android apps is Java, and you have a large market of developers as well. At the same time, the Android market is somewhat fractured, and I suspect that we'll see bigger fractures appear as the many developers tug it into various directions. Also, the lawsuits are flying, with Apple suing HTC and Samsung over their phone designs, Oracle suing Google over their use of Java. The effects of these lawsuits on the ecosystem may not be healthy long term. Finally, only 50% of Android users say they're happy with it. Definitely, that might be the effect of the particular phone they have, but it still might affect future sales.

Number three, but we try harder

Windows Phone 7 may only have 9% of the market [4], but there are some attractive qualities. First, you program using .NET, so familiarity in Web or Windows development carries over to the phone. Similarly, the tools for creating WP7 apps is familiar to .NET developers. The bad news? Well, number four in the US, and mediocre sales. In a dedicated market [5], these factors might not matter, but if you want to target a broad consumer market, you need to look elsewhere.

The others

While I don't think Blackberry is as cooked as some prognosticators, I'm not that convinced it's a platform worthy to target. I still think of Blackberry as BBM (Blackberry Messaging), with other stuff tacked on. The killer feature for the Blackberry has always (or at least should have always, mistakes notwithstanding) been the keyboard. None of the other devices have really integrated a thumb keyboard quite like Blackberry [6]. It may just be my limited imagination though, but it seems this strength is a weakness when it comes to other applications. The keyboard doesn't help playing Bejewelled, or other non-keyboard centric applications. As with Windows Phone, it may make sense in a dedicated market [7], but less if you want to target a broad audience. Also, the noise that many industry analysts are making about RIM [8] would make me hesitant to target this market.

Of course, you could avoid many of these issues by simply having a Web application. Using a bit of browser sniffing and tools like Modernizr, you can determine if the client browser can support the features you need, and craft an appropriate Web page. As most of the newer smartphones have great support for HTML5, you're actually more likely to hit a capable client than you might if you were hitting a desktop machine. The good news is that you can leverage the infrastructure used by the "main" Web application. The main limitation here is of course screen real estate. One other potential problem with this direction is that you can't get into the various app stores. Still, this is the easiest way to target multiple devices without requiring rewrites.

All of the above?

I am intrigued at PhoneGap, which recently hit the "Big 1.0". It promises a "write once, run everywhere" option, where you create the application using HTML5 and Javascript, then use their service to target all of the above platforms (and a few others). I suspect it suffers from the "least common denominator" problems of many solutions like this, but it does seem to have a good cross section of features supported. Whether they can maintain this — especially in light of Mango and iOS5 — remains to be seen. I wouldn't be entirely surprised to see a press release about the purchase of Nitobi (writers of PhoneGap) by one of the biggies.


I do think that device programming is the "next big wave"™, so it is definitely time to start investigating one or many of these platforms, so pick an obvious (or non-obvious) choice, fire up an emulator and start coding!

  1. And by "feature parity" I mean multi-tasking and a real browser.
  2. Yes, I'm ignoring MonoTouch at the moment. While I have incredible respect for Miguel de Icarza et al, I worry about how fast they can keep chasing Apple, especially now that they don't have Novell paying the way. Plus, it breaks my argument.
  3. Also, I suspect based on the number of Android devices in the Future Shop and London Drugs flyers that Android may also be big here as well.
  4. Probably a lot less, as that includes Windows Mobile phones. Even Ballmer admits, "We've gone from very small to very small, but it's been a hell of a year."
  5. It may not still be the case, but both Pepsi and Coke were using Windows Mobile devices for their drivers who service vending machines and stores.
  6. I've seen pros one-hand a reply without looking. Sadly, while driving down a highway, but still I was impressed as well as terrified.
  7. That 20% market share is probably much higher within certain enterprise and government markets, especially ones that prize their security.
  8. Analysts that seem to ignore the market penetration in enterprise and government, and the $3Billion in the bank.
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