App stores and APIs: It's the ecosystem, stupid

If you make a web application or mobile platform, one of the trendiest things you can do is add APIs and a software marketplace to it so developers will extend your product. Google is previewing its application market for Android (link), T-Mobile USA has promised a new applications store for its phones (link), and many people I've spoken with believe Microsoft bought Danger in order to get its software store technology.

The idea of encouraging third party developers dates back at least to the early days of MS-DOS, but it was associated mostly with operating systems until Web 2.0 applications took off a few years ago. Google played a big role in that change, by exposing APIs to Google Maps that made it possible to embed maps in other web applications. That helped Google Maps quickly blow past established mapping services like Mapquest, while the installed base of Google Maps extensions made it hard for Microsoft's web mapping product to gain traction.

The drive for web APIs got another big boost when Facebook enabled developers to extend its functionality, driving an explosion of widgets for Facebook that helped it grow past MySpace to become the #1 social network in the US (at least according to Alexa).

The web app people all noticed Google's and Facebook's success and furiously started adding APIs to their products. Today it's unusual to hear about a new web app that doesn't have some sort of API story or future plan to add them.

In mobile, applications have an interesting history. Lately some new mobile players have generated huge attention for their application marketplaces. The chart below shows the one year growth in the developer base for a certain well-known mobile platform:



If you're like most people in Silicon Valley, you probably think that's an Apple iPhone developer chart. But actually it's Palm OS ten years ago, from 1998 to 1999.

Disturbing, isn't it? The idea that a platform could take off like that and then crash and burn...makes you wonder if the same thing could happen to the platforms that are popular today.

And in fact, if you look at the history of APIs on both mobiles and web apps, the failures are more numerous than the successes. If you're a developer trying to pick the right platform to create your apps on, that choice is very dangerous -- you're betting the success of your company on something that has a better than 50-50 chance of failing.

If you work at a web or mobile company creating APIs or an app store, the news is equally disturbing: The odds are that you won't succeed.

So it's very important to look at the history of those failed platforms, to figure out what goes wrong and how to avoid it. When you do that, the answer is pretty clear:


It's the ecosystem, stupid

The success of a developer program is not driven just by the beauty of the APIs or the store, but by how the overall ecosystem works to enable developers to prosper. The two parts of the ecosystem that are most important to developers are the ability to create something cool, and the ability to make money. Coolness gets developers to try your platform in the first place. Most developers, especially the innovative new ones, gravitate to a platform that lets them easily create something cool that will impress their friends. But as those developers get older and more responsible, they eventually get tired of drinking lemon drops with Mark Cuban (link). They need to pay rent, buy food, and do other things that require money. If they can't make money from a platform, they will move away to the next one. So the financials are what makes developers stick around over time.

If the ecosystem breaks down anywhere in the chain, the developer community will eventually collapse. You can see this in process driving the history of some prominent web and mobile platforms:

Facebook. Earlier I said Facebook apps were a success because they helped the company grow. That's definitely true from Facebook's short-term perspective, but if you talk to Facebook developers the story is much more mixed. Some people online say there are lots of ways to monetize Facebook apps (link), but other reports say it's difficult to actually make the revenue come in (link). The online attitude toward this when Facebook's platform launched in 2007 was pretty dismissive. One commentator wrote (link):

The problem of not making money with your app is not a Facebook problem. It's your problem!

That's the right attitude for a developer to take: Control your own destiny. But monetization becomes a Facebook problem if nobody can make money. Developers poured into the Facebook platform like the tide in the Bay of Fundy, but a lot of them couldn't make money and promptly poured back out. I can tell you from personal experience that some are pretty bitter and unlikely to do anything with Facebook again.

Mobile Java's problem was that it's not a real platform. Handset vendors and operators were allowed to break compatibility between their implementations of Java, forcing developers to tweak their java apps almost endlessly, dramatically raising their costs and making it hard to scale their companies. The selling model for Java apps was also seriously broken -- to get prominent placement on a phone, developers often had to cut special deals with carriers. Some of the most successful mobile Java game developers have survived because they're great deal-makers; they figure out how to develop for a big brand that wants to create a mobile presence, or they hook into the promotion of a movie. This business model favors a few companies with the skill and contacts to cut the deals; the current mobile Java world is not an ecosystem that can support huge numbers of developers.

Palm and Windows Mobile both succeeded at first in enabling developers to create a lot of interesting applications. Although both operating systems had technical flaws, they were reasonably open to any developer, and the "write once run anywhere" idea mostly worked. Unfortunately, the marketing and sales model for those applications started out mediocre and got worse over time. There was no software store on device, so users had to go out on the web to find apps. This cut the number of people looking for applications. Those who did look online usually landed in the mobile application stores, which over time took a larger and larger share of the developer's revenue. Eventually, the stores' cut grew to more than 50% of revenue, making development uneconomical for many companies. When sales of Palm OS and Windows Mobile devices failed to grow rapidly, the financial model for many developers fell apart, and the ecosystems faded.


What to look for in an ecosystem

If you're a developer looking to find a viable ecosystem, or a platform vendor looking to build one, here are the things to look for.

How easy is it for developers to create something cool? How powerful are the APIs? Can the platform be programmed using standard development tools? Eclipse seems to be the preferred platform among much of the web app crowd, and it's free.

Is the platform programmed in a language that's obscure or difficult to use? This has long been one of the big barriers to Symbian native app development.

How do applications get visibility? Is the store displayed at the first level of the smartphone? How easy is it for users to navigate the store? Online stores like Handango are notoriously hard to navigate; the user experience is about like walking through a flea market.

Can good apps rise to the top? In some software stores, the developer has to pay for prominent placement on the store. This is incredibly corrosive to the ecosystem. The big software companies with money to pay for placement are often the least innovative. So users see an app prominently featured, try it, are disappointed, and never try another one. If web search worked this way, there's a good chance that the web as we know it would never have developed. The practice of pay for placement is a self-defeating, regressive tax -- it penalizes most the small developers who are most likely to create compelling new apps that make a platform more successful.

Ideally, placement on the store should be based on independent user reviews, so the best new apps can rise to the top naturally.

What are the terms of business? Can a developer bill for an app through the user's phone bill? Forcing people to input their credit cards separately slows adoption of software. Can the developer choose different forms of payment? Developers should be enabled to experiment with freeware and subscription payment systems, just as they do on the web. How much of the developer's revenue does the store keep? The ideal cut is no more than 20%.

Are there restrictions on the application's functionality? This is a sore point for iPhone developers. Apple won't allow intermediate platforms that run other applications. So no Java, no Flash, and no emulators like StyleTap's Palm OS emulator (link). This also inhibits other developers who want to expose APIs within their applications.

What is the overhead for security? Some platforms require applications to pay for a new security certificate every time the app is revised. The cost is typically a few hundred dollars, which doesn't sound like much to a big operator or OS company, but is a huge burden to a small company with several apps. They're basically punished every time they fix a bug, which is very unwise -- you want developers to fix bugs instantly, because that increases user satisfaction and reduces support calls. Basic security certificates can and should be issued automatically by the software store, at no charge.

How big is the user base? This will be a more and more important issue over time. For a developer, the ideal platform would let them sell to the whole base of mobile phone users, not just one brand or model.


Room for improvement

Based on those tests, no mobile platform offers an ideal ecosystem today. Apple probably comes closest at the moment. Here's how I'd grade it:

--Power: A-. The iPhone APIs give developers a huge amount of power, and there was a lot of delighted commentary on the web when the APIs were first revealed. But there is a learning curve for iPhone development; Apple has its own tools and its own variant version of C. And support for some typical OS features (such as cut and paste) is missing.

--Store: A-. The store is built into the device prominently, so apps are easier to discover. And there is a user-driven rating system. Developers can bill through Apple's iTunes system; not as convenient as billing through the carrier, but not bad. Apple takes 30% of revenue, which is not ideal, but is better than the 50% or more cut that burdens mobile app developers elsewhere.

--Terms: C+. There are significant, ambiguous restrictions on what a developer can do on the iPhone. The most onerous terms restrict the ability of developers to add functionality to applications and create software that run other applications. The terms cause a lot of confusion among developers; I'm on a mailing list for iPhone developers where they have been trying to figure out whether they can download content to an iPhone app. The answer: it's unclear as to whether content is a form of functionality, and you should ask Apple's lawyers. That is an incredibly intimidating message to app developers. It feels far too much like doing business with the operators.

--User base: Incomplete. It's relatively straightforward to make money from iPhone apps today because the number of developers is still relatively low. But over time, I think it's unlikely that Apple will be able to grow its user base at the same rate as the developer base is growing. If that happens, life will get much less pleasant for iPhone developers.

The ideal mobile app ecosystem would have the API power of the iPhone and the discovery experience of the iPhone store, coupled with business terms that allow add-on APIs like Flash, Java and Google Gears, all working across a much larger base of devices.


What it all means

If you're a software developer and some platform vendor or web company comes around evangelizing their software store or their APIs, you should evaluate the overall ecosystem they're providing, not just the store or APIs alone. If they haven't thought through issues like billing and discovery, it's a big warning sign.

If you work for a platform or web app company that wants to create a developer community, you need to plan the whole ecosystem and make sure it'll all work. This is especially important for a mobile company that wants to compete with the iPhone store. The way to fight iPhone for developers is to create a superior ecosystem. Apple's weak point is the business and technical restrictions on its developers, and the limited reach of the iPhone APIs. If another vendor -- say, Nokia or Google or Microsoft -- can pair a great store and powerful development with more openness and broader reach, they might be able to give Apple some serious competition. Elia Freedman had some good suggestions on ways to start (link).

____________

PS: Thanks to MobHappy for including my post on smartphone share in the Carnival of the Mobilists (link).

21 comments:

Tsahi Levent-Levi said...

Michael,

I couldn't agree more.
You wrote what I've been thinking about - I kinda feel bad for not writing this one myself :-)
It would be very interesting to see if the number of downloads and purchases on the iPhone AppStore stays high and how will the applications that make money today will fair a year or two down the road.

Rob said...

Hi Michael,

Nice analysis (again!).

I think you miss one broad category in the API power/openness section though. This is related to scope. e.g. What is the potential scope of activities for applications.

In widows/windows mobile/mac os/palm and others, the scope is more or less unlimited. If you want your app to set alarms, or interact with the calendar, or react to keypresses systemwide - then that is fine. This leads to a powerful category of apps that work with the device to enhance the user experience. E.g. in Palm - SkinUI completely replaces the standard drawing of forms, tables, scrollbars, etc. Other apps provide hotkey launching, enhanced text selection with the 5-way navigator, alarm/alert suites, better calendar apps, apps that respond to sms messages, etc.

In iPhone & Java, the app is almost completely sandboxed - so it must run, do a job and shut down. This doesn't just reduce the ability of apps to offer APIs to each other (as you mention) but it rules out whole categories of apps. For example on the iphone - a developer could build a list making app, but she couldn't add an alarm/alert that would trigger to remind you something relating to one of those items.

So the iPhone may be an A in power for some developers - but it is a D for others.

If you look at the bestsellers in Palm and Windows Mobile Smartphone at Mobihand and ask which of these could be built on the iPhone, you see a dramatic result.

Palm: 14 or 15 of the top 20 apps would be impossible to build on the iPhone.

http://www.mobihand.com/platformMain.asp?platform=1&section=bestsellers

Windows Mobile (Smartphone): 11 or 12 of the top 20 apps would be impossibile to build on the iPhone.

http://www.mobihand.com/platformMain.asp?platform=3&section=bestsellers

That's a hefty chunk of the apps that ought to be floating to the top!

Guilhem said...

Michael

Great post !

I would be interested on how you would rate other ecosystems according to your criteria:
- Android (or what has been announced about it)
- Symbian (with its latest "Foundation" twist)
- The various mobile Linux (Limo, MotoMAGX, Nokia/Qt)
- Adobe (Flash Lite / AIR)

any thoughts on those ?

Anonymous said...

It would also be interesting to include BREW in the comparison.
JH

Marc Tassin said...

Great article Michael! However, you left out one point that, as a mobile software developer, I think is vital to consider:

How uniform is the OS across devices?

This is something that became an enormous problem late in Palm's life. Every device handled the OS just slightly different creating a nightmare scenario where every device became, effectively, it's own OS.

This is one place where Apple gets an A+. It's also one of the things about Android that gives me hives just thinking about it. An OS where every hardware manufacturer and carrier can tweak the OS to meet their personal needs? Yikes!

shoobe01 said...

Couple points without involved analysis:

A) Everyone has an app store. Look around at the top operators and even many manufacturers. Even practically everyone who has just announced "we are building an app store."

B) At first, everyone is totally pleased with the results. Huge sales, happy customers so happy marketing guys. Then two things happen:
1) Someone re-analyzes the numbers, and notices that there are lots of subscribers; so many that the many millions of $ earned per month are still just a very small percentage of the users available, and whatever they do it never gets really mass market.
2) Churn! Subscribers get what they want, and stop coming back to the app stores. Often, very soon (6 months or less). It's too early to tell if Apple avoided this.

Ellen said...

Great analysis - thank you.

One thing that's starting to hurt developers' ability to make money in the iTunes ecosystem is the lack of trials. I've read a few times this week how the average price of apps in iTunes is consistenty dropping. No trials gives a huge advantage to lower-priced apps: users are a lot more willing to risk $2 or $3 on an unknown than $20 or even $10.

I think Apple letting trial versions be offered would change the best-seller mix a lot, and for the better.

Andy said...

You refer to a mailing list for iPhone developers. Can you say what this list is? Is it a technical list or is is more about the business aspects of iPhone development? My understanding that discussion of the iPhone SDK violates the NDA.

ellen said...

I'd be interested in the mailing list for iPhone developers as well, if you can share it. The Yahoo and Google groups aren't very useful.

Anonymous said...

I can only imagine how enjoyable it is for you as an ex-Palm guy to try to imply the Palm and Windows Mobile ecosystems are essentially identical (you don't make a single differentiation in the entire paragraph you use to describe them both). However, I think evidence to support a claim of parity is very much lacking, and in fact I would offer evidence to counter your position: Windows Mobile device sales - the all-important installed base - have been growing substantially YOY for the past several years, whereas Palm OS device sales are dismal during that same period.

To be clear: I agree that there are many similarities between the two ecosystems, and you did an excellent job of articulating those, but the massive difference in active installed base makes your conclusion - "the ecosystems faded [for *both* Palm and WM]" - incorrect. Palm's ecosystem is gone, yes. I'd say the jury is out on WM.

Justine said...

Your post really sums up how we feel as a microISV dev in the mobile space. Access to affordable distribution models is key for survival, especially to the mass market, non-early adopters.

The iTunes store solves a lot of the distribution issues: from consumer awareness, to ease of download and installation, to ease of purchase, to ease of fulfillment and registration. I've had more customers who get stuck at some point in the distribution, which amounts to a lower volume of sales because they abandon the transaction. I agree with Ellen that some sort of shareware model would make the AppStore even better, but Apple would have to address how to get the customer back to the store to complete the purchase and complete the registration.

WM and Palm are frustrating because not only do they not have streamlined distribution, but they also do not promote the existence of applications (especially in the Centro line) to hardware customers. (Not to mention the 50%+ commissions in many channels.)

I question how Google will support the flow of distribution for Android. The Android Market seems to address the customer awareness for Apps, but I haven't seen them spell out how the experience will continue from there. Even if all Android Apps lean towards "Open Source" some sort of ecommerce model needs to exist for a donation side of things.

I'm also curious how the other platforms will handle their app stores. Will the hardware or OS software companies manage the stores, or will they outsource it to one of the existing ESD's? If so, we could see high commissions in those stores as well.

Right now things are great and awful for developers--we now have many platforms from which to choose, but we now have to choose which platforms to tackle first. In the end, the developer who is in it as a business is going to migrate to whatever platform can generate the most income. The developer who is in it for the open source mantra will lean towards the most open platform. And the developer who is in it for fun, will most likely tackle the platform that's easiest to use and has the lowest upfront costs (not to mention the coolness factor).

kevin said...

I’m a developer. I’ve been seating on the sideline waiting. What Apple has done really knock the sock out of the old guard. Wait until you see Google’s App Store is out. Then, there is Microsoft. These companies know how to create a franchise for developers. First of all, they know how to give developers a road map – i.e. led the flight like a flock of ducks flying in an arrow formation.

The old guards are so out of touch. Take Motorola, for example, they still do NOT know how to engage the developers. For months, I have been trying to find out when then they will ship the web runtime solution. It’s amazing how they behavior. Yesterday, I was at their CTIA booth. I basically have the biz-dev person yelling at me saying we can tell you our roadmap because it’s privilege information. All I wanted was information when to start developing on their platform, not do mention I’m a professor at a Silicon Valley university. This attitude does not motivate me tell my students to learn how to program to Motorola handsets. In fact, I probably say the opposite, say away from Motorola as far as you can.
I recall having the same encounter from Palm back in 2000. Surprising Motorola, today is still behaving the same.

We are shipping apps on Apple now. We love it. We love Google too. Why? They do not bother us. We do not bother them. They don’t talk down at us. They lead and provided us with information how to participate in their ecosystem. With Motorola, it’s like living in Zimbabwe.

Michael, great analysis! Ecosystem is no longer created with autocracy. It takes people to sustainable ecosystem. Currently, we the developers just do not see any other companies able to do that except Apple, Google and Microsoft.

Michael Mace said...

Gnarly comments, folks. Thanks very much.

A few thoughts...


Rob wrote:

>>I think you miss one broad category in the API power/openness section though. This is related to scope. e.g. What is the potential scope of activities for applications.

Yes, good point.


>>In iPhone & Java, the app is almost completely sandboxed - so it must run, do a job and shut down. This doesn't just reduce the ability of apps to offer APIs to each other (as you mention) but it rules out whole categories of apps. For example on the iphone - a developer could build a list making app, but she couldn't add an alarm/alert ....So the iPhone may be an A in power for some developers - but it is a D for others.

I think you're right. Extremely good comment.

The action items are pretty clear for a company that wants to compete with Apple's ecosystem.


Guilhem wrote:

>>I would be interested on how you would rate other ecosystems according to your criteria:

Nice idea! I'll see what I can do...


Marc Tassin wrote:

>>How uniform is the OS across devices?

Yup, you're right. Watching Palm OS fork that way was agonizing, and we took a lot of criticism for it from the developers -- rightfully so.

Over the years, Symbian has done some very nasty stuff in that regard as well. They once broke most of the app base with an OS revision. And from what I hear, there are a lot of small differences between different S60 devices, although that may be due to Nokia rather than Symbian.


>>It's also one of the things about Android that gives me hives just thinking about it.

Good point.



shoobe01 wrote:

>>the many millions of $ earned per month are still just a very small percentage of the users available, and whatever they do it never gets really mass market.

Yes, this is one of the things that's extremely important to watch on iPhone. How will the use of apps change as they get beyond the early adopters?


Ellen wrote:

>>the lack of trials. I've read a few times this week how the average price of apps in iTunes is consistently dropping. No trials gives a huge advantage to lower-priced apps: users are a lot more willing to risk $2 or $3 on an unknown than $20 or even $10.

Another good point. Web apps have developed a huge array of financial models, and what works well for one app is often wrong for another. For the developers to succeed, a platform vendor's billing model should be flexible enough to allow rentals, free trials, etc.


Andy wrote:

>>You refer to a mailing list for iPhone developers. Can you say what this list is? Is it a technical list or is it more about the business aspects of iPhone development?

It's both, but the focus is a bit more on business aspects.


>>My understanding that discussion of the iPhone SDK violates the NDA.

Yikes. I need to go ask the list owner if they are OK with me mentioning their list. I do not want to get them in trouble with Apple Legal.


Anonymous wrote:

>>I can only imagine how enjoyable it is for you as an ex-Palm guy to try to imply the Palm and Windows Mobile ecosystems are essentially identical

Please don't assume that you know what my motivations are.


>>Windows Mobile device sales - the all-important installed base - have been growing substantially YOY for the past several years, whereas Palm OS device sales are dismal during that same period.

Good point.


>>Palm's ecosystem is gone, yes. I'd say the jury is out on WM.

Fair enough, and thanks for the comment.

But I'll add that the software store situation on Windows Mobile is just as broken as it is on Palm OS, and has been for many years. If the ecosystem is broken at any point in the chain, the whole thing is broken -- and so I think Microsoft has some very important, very overdue work to do.


Justine wrote:

>>Apple would have to address how to get the customer back to the store to complete the purchase and complete the registration.

Pretty easy -- the app stops working when the trial expires, and the system displays a notice saying to come to the store and pay for it. That plus a link that takes you straight to the app's listing in the store.

The Apple store ought to have APIs so that a developer could write this module themselves.


>>WM and Palm are frustrating because not only do they not have streamlined distribution, but they also do not promote the existence of applications (especially in the Centro line) to hardware customers. (Not to mention the 50%+ commissions in many channels.)

Yup. Palm used to promote that stuff via in-box CDs and a printed app brochure, but the story is that the operators don't like things like that in the box.


>>I question how Google will support the flow of distribution for Android. The Android Market seems to address the customer awareness for Apps, but I haven't seen them spell out how the experience will continue from there. Even if all Android Apps lean towards "Open Source" some sort of ecommerce model needs to exist for a donation side of things.

Yup. I hope Google will work this out, but they have a history of "build it and they will come" behavior.


>>In the end, the developer who is in it as a business is going to migrate to whatever platform can generate the most income. The developer who is in it for the open source mantra will lean towards the most open platform. And the developer who is in it for fun, will most likely tackle the platform that's easiest to use and has the lowest upfront costs (not to mention the coolness factor).

Nicely said.


kevin wrote:

>>We are shipping apps on Apple now. We love it. We love Google too. Why? They do not bother us. We do not bother them. They don’t talk down at us. They lead and provided us with information how to participate in their ecosystem. With Motorola, it’s like living in Zimbabwe.

Ouch!!


>>Currently, we the developers just do not see any other companies able to do that except Apple, Google and Microsoft.

There's kind of a mega-theme here of the computer industry vs. the phone industry. Revenge of the Nerds, Part XXIII.

By the way, any thoughts on RIM?

Anonymous said...

iPhone developers who are wondering if it is legal to download content should look at what eReader is doing. You can buy new ebooks via the web but download them from right within the eReader native app. I know of other developers who are taking their cue from this and going forward.

Vishy Gopalakrishnan said...

Michael - Kudos on the detailed analysis of something that I had humbly mentioned in passing when reflecting on the the Symbian Foundation earlier this year. To wit, "Developers like the rest of us will try to find the path of least resistance - going with platform that offers the most innovative ways to develop applications, provides access to broadest set of customers, and places the fewest constraints on my business model."

Have you looked at the "7 centers of gravity" thread from Andreas Constaninou on the VisionMobile Blog ?

Might also be interesting to look at some of the lessons learnt from NTTDoCoMo's success with imode in terms of building and sustaining a developer ecosystem.

CEO said...

Good post. Agree on the importance of the ecosystem, and the importance of easily discover and download applications (whatever they are). The platform is once again playing an important role, this is the platform (or services) on the web, and agree this is just part of the whole equation.

ceo

Anonymous said...

>>Please don't assume that you know what my motivations are.

My apologies - that was kind of a cheap shot on my part. Consider the assumption challenged.


>>But I'll add that the software store situation on Windows Mobile is just as broken as it is on Palm OS, and has been for many years. If the ecosystem is broken at any point in the chain, the whole thing is broken -- and so I think Microsoft has some very important, very overdue work to do.

I couldn't agree more.

truthisaconstruct said...

I'm not sure I can totally agree with you on the iPhone/Apple store rating; though I think it has more to do with problems in the API than the store itself. I also have to disagree that the Palm ecosystem is dead.

I just spent a nightmarish 5 hours configuring a client's iPhone. He's not tech savy and decided that an iPhone would work for what he wanted, contacts and calendar on the go for working with client lists and appointments. The Email and Web components were a bonus. He also wanted his password Application (SplashID, excellent BTW) on his Phone. 5 hours. Along the way we've both ended up disapointed, possibly me more than him. I went out and bought a centro the next day and couldn't be happier.

No cut and paste, no global find (just contacts), no CATEGORIES, no integrated data sync for 3rd party applications. By the end of it, my client was defending his iPhone decision to himself on the basis of integrated and pretty. SplashID still doesn't work reliably, because it syncs via WI-FI (and a lot of added hassel, though I'm sure Splash data is working on it). Our corporate IT dept, has pretty much listed the same problems, and come down on the side of Palm, Blackberry and WinMob.

Apple's Store is slick, no question. It's easy to use and right there, but it comes at a troubling price; no trial ware or flexible prices scheduling; apple reviews it all (and can kill things); iTunes must launch (no backround mode); and there is no way to sync applications. Part of this is definately API. Sandboxing understandably causes problems with anything that needs to interact or run backround processes on the iPhone/Touch, but there are certainly ways to change the API to both continue sandboxing and allow interaction/tweaking. I don't understand why Apple isn't using the Sync app built into the MACOS for syncing (and having a seperate service for it in Windows). I don't think Apple will change these though; I think they've done them on purpose. They want control, and they've discovered the carriers joy of having a captive audience. They've just managed it from both ends.

Palm's biggest failing is the lack of an integrated App store, followed closely by API forking between devices. Palm still has (limited) time to turn things around, and they can learn a lot about what to do (and what not to) from Apple. Yes, any app store they build needs to be accessable from the device and desktop, but it also has to be open to everything people put out there including tweeks, and outright replacements (unlike Apple). Updates to Devices need to be released for devices regularly that bring the device API's together so that applications will work across the range of devices.

Does Blackberry even have stores or just individual vendors (I've never worked with them, not a slam)?

WinMob has surrendered the personal and small business market to Blackberry and Palm. Some of their best software started as Palm software (Documents to Go), and most of the software available for the platform reflects the corporate customer base.

I agree that Android's potentially forked API base is a serious problem, I'll be interested to see how google plans to solve it.

Apple is winning on ellegance, but there is a point that any platform reaches where the accumulation of small problems turn into large problems. If Apple can't reasure developers and clarify content/funcationalty scopes, while also fixing shortcommings in their own apps and extending their API to make Available Apps more compelling and functional, I think the'll be in real danger of breaking their ecosystem.

- Miguel

Michael Mace said...

Andy wrote:

>>You refer to a mailing list for iPhone developers. Can you say what this list is? Is it a technical list or is it more about the business aspects of iPhone development?

Okay, I have two iPhone mailing lists for you:

The first one is tied to the Silicon Valley iPhone Developers' Meetup. I did a talk there a few weeks back, and it seemed like a very good group. They have a mailing list, and that's what I was referring to. Not really high traffic, but some of the discussions have been interesting. The home page for the group is here.

The organizer of the meetup, Tim Burks, also recommends this list. I haven't tried it yet.

David Beers said...

Somewhat off-topic, except to highlight the somewhat parochial Silicon Valley perspective in an otherwise excellent post: Google Maps has never "blown past" MapQuest, quickly or otherwise: link.

This illustrates one other aspect of software platforms, of which MapQuest APIs are a good example since they are used to display maps on 1000s of other websites. In addition to ecosystems, brand still matters: it's a valuable filter on competition-induced noise for many users.

One other point: "coolness" and "power" are sometimes less valuable than focusing on doing a few things very well: a point you've made well yourself on other occasions. Platforms with huge user bases are attractive, and "discovery" has always been one of the areas of greatest need of improvement in mobile. But I wonder if sometimes the discovery issue is made harder, not easier, by the fact that a platform is designed to be infinitely flexible and do practically anything. Sometimes niche or vertical platforms that focus on solving one or two readily understood problems for users turn the question of "ecosystem" and "discovery" into non-issues.

Just one other thing for developers to consider when looking for platforms on which to build profitable software products. In some cases "the road less traveled" is the best.

Texrat said...

Excellent article. Referenced today by me: http://tabulacrypticum.wordpress.com/2011/02/15/a-tech-ecosystem-for-the-rest-of-us/