Developing for niche platforms is illogical (and dangerous)

Developing for niche platforms is illogical (and dangerous)

Summary: If you'd been pouring your heart and soul into a BlackBerry app, you now have a major problem. Same goes for Windows Phone developers. Targeting iOS and Android is a better bet...

TOPICS: Smartphones
Small pond
Market share illustration, superimposed on a "small pond" for emphasis.

I can't read BlackBerry's "special committee" announcement this week as anything other than the company throwing in the towel. It's sad for the employees who've diligently worked to try and shift the company into the post-PC era, but what those third-party developers working equally hard to build apps for the ecosystem?

This is something I've been wondering for a while. It's quite common to find developers who target the tiny platforms -- and I include Windows Phone in this -- on the rationale that it's easier to be successful on those smaller platforms.

Now those developers have a real problem.


Here's the assumption developers do that use: "I want to be a big fish, small pond."

OK, but there's a major problem with a "small pond", and it's this: "the pond is small".

Where a lot of the confusion comes here is that we know that certain brands do rather well having a small pond. The total number of people who can afford a Ferrari is far smaller than the total number of people who can afford a Ford. Wherever you see successful companies operating well within a small pond, there's a good reason for it.

The most common case is because the pond represents a collection of affluent customers and you're selling a premium product. Or you're selling a product that is some other way specialised or niche.

What I hear from developers who target a platform in order to get a small pond is an argument that is not related to any form of niche specialisation. And, again logically, there can't be. There are no substantial differences between the smartphone platforms that can create a hook for any sort of specialisation.

It's how those people define the pond that is broken. For example, Microsoft are defining the small pond for Windows Phone by not selling as many smartphones as Apple and the Android vendors. 

To illustrate, I've randomly picked an app off of the Windows Phone store called WineTable. Looks like an interesting app -- "Pair food and wine like a Sommelier!". Great, but that's not available for iOS, or Android. Yet you can't say that only Windows Phone users want to be able to pair food and wine like a sommelier. All smartphone users might have that desire.

(I have asked WineTable about their intentions for other platforms, and I'll update this article when I receive a response.)

So why intentionally target a phone that's got a market share on shipments 3.3 percent. If they had targeted iOS and Android, they would have had 93.2 percent. All they've done is limit their market in an artificial and unnecessary way.


Second thing I hear: "Ah, but it's easier to sell into a smaller pond!"

A couple of years ago I wrote a piece for the Guardian that mentioned that cottage industry development was interesting, but the only reason for building for indie developers building apps was career development.

I think that's totally the case today. It doesn't matter how big the pond is, the market is now so mature that the marketing costs involved in creating a truly successful app means that chances of one guy or gal sitting in their bedroom hacking out an app in their spare time and making it is now about as likely as being savaged by a white tiger just after being struck by lightning and winning the lottery all at the same time.

However, all professional developers learning this new mobile stuff in their spare time can take that to the bank with their current and future employers in all sorts of ways.

Of course, this all depends on what you mean by "truly successful". If you just want to earn some pocket money, or you have income requirements that are fairly modest, creating a lifestyle business is an option. Just don't go sketching out your designs for your superyacht.

Let's say you still want to build that app and have a modest business on the side. First off, that's wrong. What you actually want to do is "build a modest business that has an app" -- it's that way round, not the other.

The platform isn't going to help you market the app significantly. Yes, if you build a good app that's doing a good job of ticking the boxes the platform owner wants ticked, they will help you, but you can't depend on that. You need to market your business, not the app, and that process is constant and ongoing.

So then we're back to the point illustrated by WineTable. Their business is helping people who like wine to get more out of the wine experience. The software used to do that -- their app -- is secondary.


BlackBerry this week has proved the danger of putting all your eggs in one, tiny, fragile basket.

Regardless, the same problem exists on Windows Phone. The "big fish in small pond" rationale is a fallacy. The market for your business is the people in the market themselves and their needs and desires.

It is not the smartphone they happen to be using. Always, always target the biggest market you can and don't create artificial barriers to success.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Image credit: Wikimedia

Topic: Smartphones

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  • or...

    you develop for all of them. Porting anymore isn't that big of a deal.

    Also, excluding windows because it is small now on the Phone only pie-chart is silly. Win8 across all platforms requires very little port work, and you pick up the massive XBOX and PC markets basically for free.
    • Porting to XBOX isn't that easy, actually

      now that they've killed XNA.
      • xna is still supported against 360

        The more winrt api will. Be in Xboxone so porting to that should be easy
      • USE Monogame Framework

        Monogame is essentially XNA.
  • Blocked my content

    Not a free world anymore, they blocked my post.
  • LoL.

    Your anti Microsoft products obsession clearly showing up. I made equal revenue on Windows Phone along with iOS and Android platforms despite your logic of developing only for iOS, and Android. Real developers like should never take advice from fakes like you. :)
    Ram U
    • Media opinions are becoming increasingly useless

      Or just paid for.
  • Awful and Myopic Suggestion

    Without "NICHE" platforms, there is no Open Source, no Linux, no OSX. If no Linux or OSX is there Android or iOS? Is/was Mac a niche? If niche is only measured by market share, I guess. Niche is also used for competitive advantage. What differentiates my company from yours? What can be outsourced? Commodity programming is a "feature" of a ubiquitous platform and drives the demand for your development skills down (and the value).

    Roll it back a few years, BB was the market for smartphones, iOS was the niche. Some advice should go unheeded.

    In software, there are very few true startup costs - especially true today with cloud platforms available for development. Don't listen to this nonsense. If you like Ubuntu on the phone, go for it. But get a Mac just in case you have to deal with the myopia that this blogger expounds.
  • Hey Matt, what desktop / laptop OS do you use again?

    And what marketshare does that OS have?

    Gee, I sure hope for your sake it is more than what I think it is because you've just insulted every developer on that OS.

    So please, Matt, do tell us, what desktop / laptop OS do you use again?

  • If developers were to follow your advice,

    there would not be any point in developing for the "niche" Linux desktop OSes...I dunno, Matt, that doesn't sit too well with me???? Guess all those desktop Linux developers need to start honing their Microsoft skills if they want to be relevant on the use your example, those working on Winde would be better off to shift to C#, .NET and Azure.
    • Arrrgggghhhh...

      "Winde" should be "Wine"...need edit button!
    • really?

      Did you ever try to comprehend what Matt suggested?

      He suggested not developing *only* for the small ecosystems, because that makes your product essentially irrelevant. The customers do not care what the platform is and whose platform it is. They might use one (platform) smartphone today and another (platform) smartphone tomorrow --- choosing them say by size, weight and colour (or whatever else).

      Target the user, not the platform. Simple advice.
  • Most commercial developers probably go where the money is

    Of course, where the money is TODAY might not be where the money is tomorrow. Putting all eggs in the same basket is not a good idea.
  • A lot of it has to do with skills

    Windows Phone probably has a lot of developers who are just sticking their toes in the water, and using their knowledge of Visual Studio to see if there is any life for their app idea.

    Small pond, perhaps, but one some people know how to swim in already.

    Blackberry is disadvantaged in this respect as BB10 is a totally new platform. Only people who built Playbook apps would have any clue how to develop for it (the development paradigm is HTML5 based, but as always, everyone's implementation is different.)
  • Defining "truly successful"

    "Of course, this all depends on what you mean by 'truly successful'."

    You're right about this. And ZDNet has a really bad habit of defining success only in terms of "are they in the Fortune 500?"

    "Just don't go sketching out your designs for your superyacht."

    Are you seriously that shallow, to actually believe that success has to be defined by ownership of a superyact?


    I'd agree - the business comes first, not the app. But business goals certainly don't have to include being in the Fortune 500. A small business can certainly decide to cater to a niche market.

    I see nothing wrong with niche markets, and I certainly don't see anything wrong with catering to them.

    Even for a big business, a niche can add a bit of supplemental income, even though a big business should certainly focus on the mass market as their primary source of income.

    That being said - I don't think it's really Blackberry's goal to become a small business, or to cater to a niche as their primary form of business. And if they're in trouble, they should be focusing on the mass market.

    But no - I don't agree with the title's assertion that "Developing for niche platforms is illogical (and dangerous)." It's not illogical or dangerous, and you really haven't shown that's the case. Niche markets can certainly be profitable markets.
  • Benefits

    It's a gamble, but there are certain benefits to coding for a niche OS. It's not just the fact that you're a big fish in a little pond. But there's also the fact that you just don't have to be as creative in coming up with ideas for applications. In many cases, if the big, established names are ignoring the niche OS, you can simply produce apps that provide the same functionality as the apps that the big boys don't feel it's worth their time to port. If the niche OS then starts gaining popularity you'll find yourself in the enviable position of being the more well-know, more established, more loved purveyor of applications in significant market segments. For relatively little effort you ride the rising tide to big profits.

    There are certainly examples of companies that have coded for niche OS's primarily, and become very successful as a result. Consider Bungie games. If you've never owned a CD player you may be too young to realize it, but Bungie got its start coding games for the Macintosh OS at a time when Mac gaming was a very, very niche market. Today they produce one of the widest and most successful gaming franchises in history with the Halo series.
  • Developing for niche platforms is illogical (and dangerous)

    LOL this is the worsts advice I have ever heard. If you want to make any money from your applications you will want to develop for growing markets which Microsoft Windows Phone is doing. If you develop for the larger base like iOS or android your app will be lost in the 500,000 other apps and you will get no sales.

    Are you a real developer or are you a developer like a high school html class is a developer?
  • It depends on the platform

    Niche markets can be profitable if they are done correctly.

    There is nothing wrong with developing for a platform with a small market share, as long as that platform is stable and productive.

    OS X is a niche market, yet has vibrant development. We are also seeing the same thing with Windows Phone. Some of the best apps come out of niche markets.
  • Re: no substantial differences between the smartphone platforms

    There are some, like the ability to develop VPNs and wi-fi analyzers: both only possible on Android.
    • @Idol17

      You think that VPN's are only possible on Android? Sorry to burst your bubble, but Windows Phone 8 supports a pluggable VPN infrastructure and iOS supports a variety of VPN solutions too.