The Apple app monster

Peter Burrows
28 Jan 2009
00:00

Peer over the shoulder of that person fiddling with an iPhone. Chances are they're doing something other than making a phone call. They may be playing a game like Tetris or trading stocks through TD Ameritrade (AMTD). They may even be conducting serious business, with a mobile version of Salesforce.com's customer-management software. The possibilities grow by the day: Since Apple (AAPL) began letting outsiders offer software for the iPhone six months ago, more than 10,000 apps have been created.

This is more than just fun and games for Apple. The company has grabbed an early lead in turning the mobile phone into a high-powered computing device capable of running all kinds of applications. The average iPhone owner has downloaded at least 15 applications in the past six months. The average person carrying a phone from Nokia (NOK), Motorola (MOT), or others hasn't downloaded a single one, says Nielsen Mobile analyst Nic Covey. 'It's remarkable what Apple has accomplished in so short a time,' he says.

There's no guarantee Apple can maintain its lead. CEO Steve Jobs' decision to step down for six months will be a distraction. Plus, the bulk of the 10,000 applications available from its online App Store are free or cost just 99 cents. So most developers aren't making the kind of money needed to build substantial companies. 'On average, the App Store model is not working out for developers,' says Roger McNamee, a financier with Elevation Partners who is backing mobile-phone rival Palm (PALM). In addition, Nokia, Research In Motion (PALM), and Microsoft (MSFT) all plan to unveil competing application stores.

Still, Apple is making progress in expanding the kinds of software available for the iPhone. Besides Salesforce.com, Oracle (ORCL) is developing corporate software for the device. A growing number of startups are charging higher prices for software, including applications for photo editing, project management, and exercise routines. San Francisco's Beejive Inc. gets $16.99 for a program that lets instant-messaging addicts stay in touch with friends on a variety of messaging services at the same time. Research firm Evans Data says 20% of wireless developers now create software for Apple, up from 8% six months ago. 'That's the biggest leap we've ever seen,' says Vice-President John F. Andrews.

Developers need to profit, too

Apple may have a shot at staking out a position in mobile phones similar to the one Microsoft established in personal computers. In the 1980s and '90s, the software giant fostered a strong community of independent developers who built products for the Windows operating system, which in turn fueled demand for PCs that ran Windows. No one expects Apple to achieve Microsoft's level of dominance, but expectations are high for a company that holds less than 2% of the mobile-phone market today. 'Apple could be at 20% in five years,' says analyst Ken Dulaney of researcher Gartner Group (IT). 'Every developer I talk to wants to work with them.' (Apple will likely see iPhone sales decline in the short term because of the economic downturn.

Citigroup (C) analyst Richard Gardner said on Jan. 13 that sales in the fourth quarter could be below 4 million units, down from 6.9 million in the third quarter.)

Apple's challenge in software will be to create a way for developers to make a healthy profit at the same time it does. The company has software tools that make it possible to create an application in weeks rather than several months.

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