Software developers looking to enter the market should focus their energy on building games, navigation and music apps for the mobile platform, because this is where the money currently is.
Tim Renowden, device analyst at Ovum's London office, noted that these apps are popular with the consumer masses. However, these market segments are also highly competitive and developers would have to come up with "something unique" to tap the burgeoning sector, Renowden said in an e-mail interview.
According to Ovum, the number of mobile app downloads will clock 18.6 billion across all platforms in 2014, with end-user revenues reaching US$6 billion.
"These areas are highly competitive and difficult to make money from, unless an app is a huge success," said Renowden. "Most apps struggle to find an audience unless they can break into the very top ranked app lists on each platform, which is extremely difficult especially for smaller developers." He added that most popular apps are tied to an existing Web service.
His assessment is shared by Nokia's Purnima Kochikar, vice president of Forum Nokia and the Nokia developer community, who said there is no "free lunch" for developers hoping to make a quick buck out of a "hit app".
"Developers should [instead] look for platform vendors who provide longer term viability for their business, by providing both the technologies that simplify development costs and provide global reach," explained Kochikar. "This includes not only tools to build the apps, but an understanding of local markets, business models and consumption patterns."
Enterprise-level applications, and the marketplace for these software, will also become "more prevalent", she said, due to the availability of high bandwidth and cloud computing. This, she added, will change the "dynamics of the types of apps, modes of operation and types of users" in the market, although coding business apps would require a different skillset.
Android next big thing?
Another potential lucrative niche is the Android market, which Renowden observed is receiving "enormous industry buzz" at the moment, particularly as more Android-based handsets are released into the market by major manufacturers and the platform continues to mature.
"There is potential for Android handsets to vastly outsell the iPhone simply because it's becoming clear how many models will be running [the Google OS], and at various price points," he said.
Travis Ho, director of Touch Dimensions, thinks likewise. The Singapore-based startup is currently developing its Windows Mobile-based real time strategy game Autumn Dynasty.
Ho noted that the Windows Mobile and Android platforms--though still in their "nascent stage--are the most likely competitors able to shake iPhone's dominance of the apps market.
"Both app stores have the potential to reach loads of phone users as [the app stores] are still under-exploited. So it's likely that there is much room to grow [on these two platforms] before the next killer platform, that everyone wants to jump onto, is introduced," Ho told ZDNet Asia.
Regardless of platform, developers should look closer at opportunities for apps that deliver compelling experiences to end-users.
Mark Glikson, Microsoft's Asia-Pacific general manager of developer and platform evangelism, pointed to the company's latest beta version of its Web development platform, Silverlight 4, as an example that can deliver rich performance apps to heighten user experience.
Platform interoperability barrier
However, the main challenge mobile developers face today is the wide variety of platforms available in the market, and the difficulty in producing apps that are platform-agnostic.
This platform fragmentation shows no signs of easing off, with various platforms based on mobile Linux now emerging, noted Renowden. These include Nokia's Maemo, Vodafone's 360 and Emblaze's ELSE platform, which are not compatible with each other or with other operating systems such as Samsung's Bada or Palm's WebOS.
Ho, however, believes this issue is not difficult to resolve.
He explained that programs for desktop computers, Microsoft's Xbox game console and Windows Mobile OS phones, can be coded in the C# programming language, which is "fairly easy to cart around".
He noted that some recoding is "unavoidable", since different platforms only support a certain set of framework, while others simply have different properties such as mobile phones and their small screen format, and PCs without accelerometers.
Jeffrey Jiang, also a director at Touch Dimensions, said the initial development phase requires significant time testing on various platforms. "But, once the first game is deployed on multiple platforms, subsequent programs would be a lot easier," he said.
Kochikar also noted that Web technologies enable platform-agnostic application development for the most part. However, while these technologies are good enough for building basic apps, they are not "sophisticated enough to enable fantastic experiences" that some rich-media developers aspire to build.
"At Nokia, we are addressing this by providing WebRT for the basic apps, and Qt, a runtime that works across many platforms, as means to enable the fantastic applications without the complexity of building native apps," she said.
Glickson added that there is a time and a place for both platform-agnostic and platform-specific applications to co-exist.
"[While] there is the opportunity to deliver strong value across multiple standards-based browser platforms…quite often the richest experiences and the best economic value point, for both the developer and consumer of an application from a productivity perspective, will come from leveraging the proprietary strengths of platform elements designed for a specific form factor," he said.