Fragmented platforms

Long gone are the days when a family’s first exposure to the latest developments in information technology would come courtesy of the parents’ workplace. Today, when it comes to end-user devices, the flow of adoption travels in the opposite direction; first in the home, then in the office.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the smartphone market. The BlackBerry, possibly the last popular device to have been work-mandated, now competes with Apple’s iPhone and devices based on Google’s Android mobile operating systems for a place in the suit pocket. Microsoft had made numerous attempts to gatecrash the mobile market with handheld translations of its Windows software, while Nokia still dominates the handset market.

This means that, unlike the desktop PC operating system market, the smartphone OS sector is diverse. Statistics published by market analyst Gartner in May showed that while Nokia’s Symbian was the clear market-leader, with a 44% share of sales in 1Q10, this was challenged by BlackBerry OS at 19%, iPhone 15% and Android 10%.

This diversity in software platforms requires application developers either to choose a single platform or to build different versions of their applications for each operating system.  

“It’s very different from the PC market where [application developers] can pick Windows and know they’re going to get 80% or more of the addressable market,” says Adam Leach, an Ovum analyst specialising in mobile devices. “With smartphones, if they choose one or two platforms they’re still going to be missing out on a huge chunk of the market.”

Leach believes that Google’s Android OS will be popular among application developers because of its open source philosophy and compatibility with a wide array of hardware: “There will be a lot of focus on Android over the next couple of years because of its licensing model, and as a platform it allows a lot of other [handset makers] to compete with Apple.”

This is not just a concern for software developers themselves. As smartphones become powerful enough to support business applications, this fragmentation is becoming a strategic concern for IT departments.

The relative fate of these smartphone platforms in the business market lies in the hands of the enterprise applications vendors, Leach believes. “There’s a number of big suppliers in the business app space that, depending on what platforms they choose to go mobile on, will dictate how business-friendly the platform is seen to be,” he explains.

He also believes that Microsoft might exploit its familiarity with the business market to boost Windows 7 Mobile, launched later this year, although it is “pretty much a consumer play”.

“I find it hard to believe that Microsoft would completely turn their back on the [enterprise] market,” says Leach. “I would be surprised if they don’t leave the enablers in that platform to do the kind of policy and device management and integration into things like Exchange and the other IT services, because it’s a core competency for them.”

There may be a solution to this fragmentation – the delivery of mobile applications as platform-independent web services consumed through a browser. The HTML5 standard, due for ratification during the coming year, may help to realise this, as it will improve the functionality of purely web-based applications.

Whether this is the interests of handset vendors such as Apple and BlackBerry is another question, though. “For a deeper experience on this platform, the smartphone vendors are going to keep their native environments intact and try to differentiate on them,” says Leach.

Peter Done

Peter Done is managing director of Peninsula Business Services, the personnel and employment law consultancy he set up having already built a successful betting shop business.

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