Monday, February 25th, 2008
Michael Mace, a former Palm VP, says the business of native mobile apps is dying. He includes a quote from Palm veteran Elia Freedman summarizing why some of us have found mobile application development to be a deeply frustrating experience.
From the technical perspective, there are a couple of big issues. One is the proliferation of operating systems. Back in the late 1990s there were two platforms we had to worry about, Pocket PC and Palm OS. Symbian was there too, but it was in Europe and few people here were paying attention. Now there are at least ten platforms. Microsoft alone has several — two versions of Windows Mobile, Tablet PC, and so on. [Elia didn’t mention it, but the fragmentation of Java makes this situation even worse.]
I call it three million platforms with a hundred users each (link).
The second technical issue is certification. The walls are being formed around devices in ways they never were before. Now I have to certify with both the OS and with each carrier, and it costs me thousands of dollars. So my costs are through the roof. On top of that, the adoption rate of mobile applications has gone down. So I have to pay more to sell less.
Then there’s marketing. Here too there are two issues. The first is vertical marketing. Few mobile devices align with verticals, which makes it hard for a vertical application developer like us to partner with any particular device. For example, Palm even at its height had no more than 20% of real estate agents. To cover our development costs on 20% of target customer base, I had to charge more than the customers could pay. So I was forced to make my application work on more platforms, which pushed me back into the million platforms problem.
The other marketing problem is the disappearance of horizontal distribution. You used to have some resellers and free software sites on the web that promoted mobile shareware and commercial products at low or no charge. You could also work through the hardware vendors to get to customers. We were masters of this; at one point we were bundled on 85% of mobile computing devices. We had retail distribution too.
Where’s he going with this? You can guess where he’s going.
Meanwhile, there is now an alternative platform for mobile developers. It’s horribly flawed technically, not at all optimized for mobile usage, and in fact was designed for a completely different form of computing. It would be hard to create a computing architecture more inappropriate for use over a cellular data network. But it has a business model that sweeps away all of the barriers in the mobile market. Mobile developers are starting to switch to it, a trickle that is soon going to grow. And this time I think the flash flood will last.
I think Web applications are going to destroy most native app development for mobiles. Not because the Web is a better technology for mobile, but because it has a better business model.
Think about it: If you’re creating a website, you don’t have to get permission from a carrier. You don’t have to get anything certified by anyone. You don’t have to beg for placement on the deck, and you don’t have to pay half your revenue to a reseller. In fact, the operator, handset vendor, and OS vendor probably won’t even be aware that you exist. It’ll just be you and the user, communicating directly.
Until recently, a couple of barriers prevented this from working. The first was the absence of flat-rate data plans. They have been around for a while in the US, but in Europe they are only now appearing. Before flat-rate, users were very fearful of exploring the mobile web because they risked ending up with a thousand-Euro mobile bill. That fear is now receding. The second barrier was the extremely bad quality of mobile browsers. Many of them still stink, but the high quality of Apple’s iPhone browser, coupled with Nokia’s licensing of WebKit, points to a future in which most mobile browsers will be reasonably feature-complete. The market will force this — mobile companies how have to ship a full browser in order to keep up with Apple, and operators have to give full access to it.
As Michael points out, it’s not all gloom and doom for mobile apps, especially with the official iPhone SDK due out real soon now. For basic business apps, though, maybe we’ve already reached the tipping point.
Posted by Michael Mahemoff at 2:24 pm