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Apps call, but will your phone answer?

Despite the buzz over powerful new mobile phones and applications, software executives and analysts say incompatible operating systems are the biggest hurdle to turning mobile app development into the cash cow they should and could be.
Image: Retailers Prepare For Launch Of Motorola's New Droid Phone
Apple’s iPhone, left, and phones like the Droid, right, which run on Google’s Android system, can’t run the same apps, forcing developers to choose or spread their resources across multiple platforms.George Frey / Getty Images
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The buzz at the International Consumer Electronics Show surrounding powerful new mobile phones and the rich programs that can run on them obscures a profound frustration for many users:

They don’t make that app for my phone.

Mobile software executives and analysts said this week that the large number of incompatible wireless operating systems was the biggest impediment to turning mobile application development into the big moneymaking business they said it should and could be.

“Developers must essentially rebuild apps for different handsets and operating systems,” said David Christopher, chief marketing officer for AT&T’s wireless and consumer division. That complicates developers’ production processes while driving up their costs, he said during the company’s annual Developer Summit, which runs in conjunction with CES.

It also means that while there may be more than 100,000 apps for AT&T’s millions of customers to choose from, they can use them “only if they have the right handset,” said Ralph de la Vega, the wireless division’s president and chief executive.

Many variations even among same brands
The problem of fragmentation is bigger than just iPhone vs. Windows Mobile vs. Symbian.

For example, there are at least four variations of the iPhone OS. And while most iPhone apps will run on all four — supporting the iPhone 3GS, 3G, 2G and iPod Touch — not all of them do.

Similarly, there are at least six separate “device profiles” just for phones made by Nokia Corp. running Symbian, the No. 1 OS worldwide. Those six profiles don’t all run all of the same applications.

Then throw in three versions of Microsoft’s Windows Mobile (with a fourth coming soon) and Research in Motion’s Blackberry OS and Palm Inc.’s WebOS and numerous varieties of mobile Linux systems and even more flavors of Java-based “applet” systems.

And this week, “Google just changed the game here with its new phone,” said Craig Wigginton, who analyzes the telecommunications market for accountants Deloitte & Touche.

He was referring to Google Inc.’s announcement this week of the Nexus One smartphone, which — like the Droid, another heavyweight new phone that is shaking up the market — runs on Google’s own Android OS.Not even 2 years old, Android is already a poster child for the fragmentation stymieing the development of software applications for smartphones.

The Nexus One will run on version 2.1 of Android, and the Droid soon will. But other popular Android phones are stuck on version 1.6, which doesn’t run many apps written for the newer releases. And many apps written for version 1.6 can’t run on version 1.5, which is still prominent in the Android market.

Compromise apps equals ‘sub-optimal’ performance
The bewildering array of platforms threatens to stall continued innovation in the smartphone market, Damith C. Rajapakse, a computing specialist at the National University of Singapore, concluded in an influential 2008 paper examining the problem.

Having to support so many operating systems can lead developers to release compromise applications “that behave in sub-optimal ways,” Rajapakse found. On the other hand, if they choose to focus on one or just a few platforms, they’re forced to abandon a much bigger potential market.

Those considerations raise barriers to entry that deter smaller developers from even trying, limiting innovation and hindering the growth of the market, he wrote.

The impact is felt “in almost all aspects of software life cycle,” Rajapakse found, “driving up the cost, and lengthening the time-to-market.”

But there may be a lifeboat on the horizon, said Darren Cross, director of business development for Comcast Interactive Media’s Fandango movie site, who pointed to a major revision of the standard markup language of the Web.

The new standard, called HTML5, has been in development for more than 5½ years. The idea is to de-emphasize hardware-specific technologies like Adobe Systems Inc.’s Flash, which doesn’t run on iPhones or most Android phones, and Sun Microsystems’ JavaFX, which won’t work on any phone that doesn’t support Java in some form.

While work on HTML5 is expected to continue for many years, some of its elements are scheduled to be implemented this year. Eventually, developers should be able to to build graphically rich “Web apps” that to the end user look and behave like native apps — even though they’re actually run in the Web browser, making them usable on every smartphone that has a compliant browser.

Thanks to caching and database standards built in to the language, many of those apps can run offline, as Google demonstrated last year with HTML5 versions of GMail and Google Maps.

Wigginton, of Deloitte & Touche, said major evolution was vital, or else mobile app development would continue to run in slow motion. The mobile market, he said, “doesn’t make sense if we don’t have some sort of consolidation.”