Seeking memorable mobile apps

perspective Mobile applications are numerous but often lacking in quality. One analyst looks at what's needed to improve them.

perspective "Mobile application stores--should they be controlled by handset manufacturers?"

This question was circulated among members of the Mobile Data Association (MDA) group on social networking site LinkedIn last month. It was clear from the responses that this is a key battleground for the many different players in the mobile ecosystem.

This includes handset vendors such as Nokia, Palm and Research In Motion; software platform vendors such as Microsoft and Symbian; mobile operators who have devices tailored or tuned to their specifications and networks; and a number of independent portals who offer applications across all networks and devices.

For hardware vendors, providing a shop window for products running on their platform has been a successful ploy in the IT industry. In the 1990s Sun Microsystems produced a catalog called Catalyst that listed the third-party applications that ran on its workstation platform. This was a success with the sales force due to its 'thud factor'--printed on paper, it peaked at more than 4cm thick.

It was only for window shopping, however, and relied on traditional channels for sales, as you could not actually buy these applications from Sun.

Today's round-the-clock online connectivity means mobile application shops enjoy distinct advantages when it comes to converting viewings into sales. No manufactured CDs to shrink wrap, stock or deliver--and immediate billing, either directly or through an electronic storefront provider.

The applications themselves also have the potential of becoming more and more interesting, thanks in part to widespread, fast mobile networks and affordable flat-rate data tariffs.

However, before they fulfill this potential, the market must overcome a number of challenges beyond the cost or time of download.

Different device types, operating systems and characteristics--as well as varied networks and operator-specific criteria--make it difficult for developers to hit the entire addressable market without a lot of effort put into porting from one platform to another.

Handset manufactures can of course play a positive role in making this easier for developers but all too often the temptation is to remain proprietary.

While Apple has undoubtedly successfully translated the 'buy a tune or video clip' model of iTunes into the mobile application domain, unfortunately for application developers the returns are also at a similar price point to music tracks--sub one dollar, euro or pound--making the development of more sophisticated applications difficult to fund.

The result: the mobile application market is a numbers game in which everyone strives for volume. Application stores are popping up from mobile operating system vendors and operators as each clambers to follow Apple's lead to attract as many developers and applications as possible.

The problem, as anyone visiting the Apple App Store quickly realizes, is: how do you find anything really good?

Money can be spent on marketing, promotion and site design but that's usually only for the established players and not the innovative upstarts who might offer something really special. Of course there are recommendation engines, user voting and following the wisdom of the masses. But doesn't that ultimately mean the bland leading the bland and the loss of the long tail of variety?

On its own, yes, and one impact is that sophisticated, valuable and expensive to develop applications will be avoided--both by potential purchasers and developers who will see more benefit in developing 'iTat' instead of powerful or more involved applications.

More discrimination and discernment is required and this is where application stores can add value. Some could be mass market mobile supermarkets with bundled special offers and deals, packaged by the aggregator or carrier, while others could focus on market sectors and offer knowledge and advice like any specialist shopkeeper.

There is also the opportunity for handset companies to validate developers and run programs to encourage them in the same way the major IT platform companies have done in the past.

So who really is best placed to benefit from mobile applications growth?

Handset and open platform suppliers have the most to gain from swelling the ranks of developers on their platform, but the financial return for the application developer depends on volume, margin and cost.

It's all to play for, but for someone to be successful they have to grow the developer community and increase their rewards--Sun's Catalyst was aptly named.

Rob Bamforth is principal analyst at Quocirca. He and five other analysts contribute to ZDNet Asia's sister site, Silicon.com, a regular column that seeks to demystify the latest jargon and business thinking.

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