Thursday, May 28, 2009

App stores: early or not at all?

In the past 10 months, the Apple app store has been a tremendous success, helping to fuel the success of the iPhone. Now all the other platforms owners (Google, Microsoft, RIM) and operators are planning their own app stores.

There are some dubious assumptions that both app store owners and app developers are making about app stores.

  • Early apps were successful so we can be too.
  • Early apps were successful but it’s too late for us.
  • App stores made Apple a success and will make our platform a success too
  • All we need is the “killer app” to make our platform a smash hit.
The answer is: Your mileage will vary.

All this is a preface to a discussion Wednesday in San Mateo by two Symbian Foundation executives — “catalyst” David Wood and interim marketing VP Ted Shelton — on their own planned app store.

The app store plan for Apple is pretty simple: Apple makes the phone, Apple makes the platform, and Apple strong-armed the carriers into providing (on-deck) access to App Store apps on any iPhone. For firms that license their OS (Google, Microsoft, Symbian) the story is quite a bit messier, since both the phone maker and the operator may want to get involved.

At the Nokia Developer Conference last month, Symbian Foundation head Lee Williams announced Symbian will be developing its own app store. It appears most analysts in the US missed the story, to the point that some (like my friend Matt Asay) are growing impatient.

Shelton and Wood talked about the app store Wednesday night to a small grouping of developers and analysts. The name is not settled, but the name I thought fit best was “Symbian App Warehouse.” Rather than sell to end users, they will certify applications and distribute them to all manner of application stores (e.g. Nokia Ovi) run by handset vendors, operators. The claim was that it would be without a fee, but I (like others) suspect in the long run they will need a minimal fee to cover operating costs; Mike Mace suggested 5-6%.

Symbian is shopping for lead ISVs: 5 developers in July, 100 in October for the 2009 Symbian Exchange and Exposition (“Come and SEE the future of mobile.”) The idea is to scale slowly to work out some of the kinks — not to impose some sort of limit as to the number of applications.

So the offer from Symbian was simple: do you want to be app # 45,678 at the Apple store or one of the first five at the Symbian store? As Shelton said, “the first movers have a greater opportunity to make money because there is a lower signal to noise ratio.” Palm has been making similar claims to prospective Pre developers (but with 0% share for its new platform vs. nearly 50% for Symbian).

Shelton had a point: ceteris paribus, later is worse. When I launched my Mac software company in July 1987 I had a far harder time getting carried by the channel and getting noticed than had Silicon Beach Software 3 years earlier. (I also had less money and less compelling applications). Of course, big companies with big budgets are better equipped to enter late than small self-funded (perhaps garage-dwelling) startups.

The iPhone App Store with its high visibility (and high download rate) would be very attractive if I had a narrow niche program, such as a virtual bass guitar. Unfortunately, PocketGuitar (99¢) already does that, and there are also other electronic guitars, several pianos, drum sets and even simulated sax, flute and bugle (blow on the mike). This is among more than 1300 applications listed under the “music” category.

So the Apple app market is heavily fragmented, and with a free online course being viewed by 100,000 developers, it will only get worse. Expectations for the Android Market mean that it is likely to head in the same direction. What should a developer do?

In the long run, developers will enter with one platform and then (if their app is hot) port to everything in sight; as with videogames, a platform will have only a temporary exclusive. The web-based apps (Facebook, MySpace, Google maps etc.) are already heading in this direction. A handful of companies (like Pangea Software on the iPhone) will figure out a way to come up with a string of hits.

In the short run, young developers need an open field market entry strategy: go where the competitors ain’t. Videogame developers have done this for more than a decade, just as companies choose geographic markets that are most promising. Once all the app stores have their initial launch ISVs, it will be up to developers to figure out a way to stand out of the clutter.


Matt Asay said...

Great post, Joel, and I agree (both that I missed the announcement of the Symbian app store and with the rest that you wrote). I'm having dinner with David in London next month and hope to get up to speed on Symbian's efforts.

Mostly, I just feel they've been too quiet about the good things they're doing.

John Dowdell said...

"In the long run, developers will enter with one platform and then (if their app is hot) port to everything in sight; as with videogames, a platform will have only a temporary exclusive."True, if the only access to a device is through device-specific coding.

But there's another trend, towards cross-device coding, where a new app could launch in several device-specific stores simultaneously.


Joel West said...


I'll agree and disagree. Cross-device coding is great if you have the tools and the frameworks.

I'll disagree that it's new or yet a major trend. Cross-platform development has been the Holy Grail for at least 25 years, right up there with the Universal Transmogrifier.

My sense is that Nokia wants QT to be this universal framework. Pre-Android Google wanted it to be web apps. Third parties have been selling frameworks for a while to try to solve this sort of thing.

I wouldn't count Flash as a cross-platform app, I'd count it as its own platform that's hosted on some devices not others. It obviously is the best solution for some problems (e.g. desktop animations) but right now it doesn't help with the iPhone. Plus I think Apple and Google are Nokia are just as wary of Adobe as the universal tollkeeper as they would be of Microsoft.


onUIQ said...

Inded, great comment.
However, I'd also put Nokia in the web apps camp, the current push on WRT suggests so. There will be capability in Qt for web development. As with maemo and device platforms, Nokia certainly does not have a one-trick strategy for cross-platform apps.

hymanroth said...

In theory Ajax based apps could be multi-platform. The stars are not quite aligned for this to happen, but they're getting close. Whoever nails the licensing model for web/mobile Ajax apps can look forward to a life of Pinja Coladas and nice cumfy chairs...