The battle of mobile software apps

Jack Ewing
02 Mar 2009

Imagine if makers of, say, vacuum cleaners needed to design different models for different stores. One for Wal-Mart (WMT), another for Target (TGT), another for Tesco (TSCO.L), and yet another for Carrefour (CARR.PA). That's a bit what it's like to be in the business of writing programs for mobile phones.

Online marketplaces for software applications and other services are proliferating. Among companies announcing new online stores at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona were Nokia (NOK), Microsoft (MSFT), French wireless carrier Orange (FTE), and Germany's Deutsche Telekom (DT). They'll sell everything from simple applications that tell you the weather to more complex navigation software to help you find your way.

Increasingly, such online software marketplaces are a key way for companies to make their handsets more attractive while also generating revenue. 'A device alone is not enough anymore,' Nokia Chief Executive Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo told a small group of reporters at the congress, the wireless industry's largest gathering. 'The 'wow' comes from the combination of the device with services.'

Rival mobile operating systems

The problem for people who write mobile software is that different handset brands use different operating systems"”each with its own requirements. Someone writing a program that, for example, tracks a user's favorite football teams has to do different versions for Apple (AAPL) phones, Nokia phones, or Research In Motion (RIMM) BlackBerrys.

And there's no sign that the mobile industry is moving toward a single, dominant operating system as exists in the PC universe with Microsoft Windows. On the contrary, mobile operating systems are multiplying. Google (GOOG) is putting its formidable financial resources and engineering talents behind its Android operating system. Britain's Vodafone (VOD) said Feb. 17 it will join the carriers offering phones with Google's OS, launching an Android-based Magic phone from Taiwanese handset maker HTC in Britain, Spain, Germany, France and Italy this spring. (For a look at this and other phones announced at the conference, see our slide show.)

Microsoft, a minor player in mobile operating systems with just 12% of the smartphone market, is making a renewed push in the wireless world as well. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer made a personal appearance in Barcelona to present a new version of Windows Mobile as well as plans for an online applications store.

But others in the industry doubt whether Windows Mobile can compete with the Apple iPhone, which has proved popular with software developers, or the Symbian operating system used by Nokia, which now accounts for nearly half the smartphone market. 'Windows Mobile could be the odd man out,' says Rob Glaser, CEO of RealNetworks (RNWK).

For consumers, competition in operating systems is probably a good thing. But for developers the competing systems force them to make difficult choices. They can write different versions of the same program for every operating system, which is time-consuming and expensive. Or they can target whichever operating systems they think will generate the most users"”and forsake the rest.

Mobile developers get a new Java software

One company that has confronted the problem is MySpace, the social networking site now owned by News Corp. (NWS), which like other Internet-based businesses is making its content available on smartphones. 'In the early days we tried to do separate applications for every carrier and handset on a global basis.

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