In The Mobile World, What Have We Done?

Summary: The business enterprise of making native apps for mobile devices is dying, crushed by a fragmented market and restrictive business methods. The issues are so very bad that the mobile web, despite its many specialized drawbacks, is a better way to deliver new functionality to mobiles now. I think this will drive an instant rise in mobile web development, largely replacing the mobile application business.

This has huge implications for mobile providers, handset companies, developers, and users. Traveling with a laptop differs from PC processing. For the last decade, that has been the fundamental guideline of the mobile data industry. It had been the central insight of Palm Computing’s “Zen of Palm” viewpoint. Psion came up with similar ideas, and you may hear echoes of these out of every other successful traveling with a laptop firm: Mobile computers are used in a different way from PCs and must be designed in different ways therefore.

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We all assumed this also meant mobile devices needed a complete mobile-specific software stack, including an operating system and APIs designed specifically for mobility, and indigenous third-party applications produced from the bottom up for mobile usage. That’s what most of us believe, but I’m needs to think we got it wrong.

Back in 1999 once I joined Palm, it seemed we’d the complete mobile ecosystem nailed. The market was actually exploding, each year with the installed foundation of devices doubling, and an unbelievable selection of creative and useful software popping up around. It experienced like we were at the industry leading of a trend, but in hindsight it was similar to the high drinking water mark of the flash flood. In the years that adopted, the energy and momentum drained out of the mobile applications market gradually.

The problem wasn’t just limited by Palm; the level of creator activity and creativity that we noticed in the glory days of Palm OS hasn’t reappeared on any mobile platform since. Actually, as the marketplace shifted from handhelds to smartphones, the situation for mobile app developers has become substantially worse. That came home if you ask me very forcefully a few days ago, when I got a call from Elia Freedman. Elia is CEO of Infinity Softworks, making vertical market software for mobile devices (tasks like real estate valuation and financial services). He was one of the market leaders of the Palm software market, year background in mobile applications with ten.

I eventually moved on from Palm, and Elia branched out into other platforms such as Blackberry. But we’ve kept in touch, therefore he called recently to tell me that he previously abandoned his mobile applications business. Elia gave me an extended explanation of why. Two problems have caused a drop in the mobile apps business during the last few years. First, the business enterprise has become tougher technologically. Second, marketing and sales have grown to be harder.

From the specialized perspective, there are a handful of big issues. You are the proliferation of os’s. Back in the late 1990s there have been two platforms we had to be concerned about, Pocket PC and Palm OS. Symbian too was there, but it was in European countries and few individuals were paying attention here.

Now there are in least ten platforms. Microsoft has several — two versions of Home windows Mobile alone, Tablet PC, etc. I call it three million systems with 100 users each (hyperlink). The second technical issue is certification. The wall space is being created around devices with techniques they were before never. Now I have to certify with both OS and with each carrier, and I am cost by it thousands.

So my costs are through the roofing. On top of that, the adoption rate of mobile applications down has gone. So I have to pay more to market less. Then there’s marketing. Here too there are two issues. The first is vertical marketing. Few cellular devices align with verticals, which makes it hard for a vertical program creator like us to partner with any particular device. For instance, Palm even at its height had only 20% of real estate agents.