Friday, 26 June 2009

Is the expanding mobile environment a good thing?

Thanks to a response from "Mobile" to my blog from a couple of days back, pointing out that the whole underlying market for Smartphones will continue to expand and diversify.

It seems pretty clear that most product churn seems to be of little benefit to the consumer. For example: I was pretty happy with Windows 95, and accept that Windows XP is better; but cannot see any point at all in Windows Vista. :) Companies have a need to keep re-inventing successful products, as milking a cash-cow is hugely easier than creating a new one.

For me, phones have been capable enough for most things since Windows Mobile 2002! That allowed full-featured, multi-threaded applications to be written and deployed in C++; with support out-of-the-box for full-duplex audio. With easy exchange of data through the PC using Active Sync. Devices were cheap, too.

All that was missing back then was a realisation by the market that such a device was a genuinely capable, multi-purpose mobile computer.

Since then, I can't see that Windows Mobile has moved on much (although the development tools are now better!); but then it really didn't need to change much, it has been a great platform for a long time. Symbian seems to have stood still for many years, and is stuck with a terrible variant of C++ and an awful tool chain. iPhone has opened a lot of peoples eyes, full credit to Apple for putting their toes in the water and for extending the iPod concept to include iPhone, and for pointing-out a direction for touchable UIs.

Anyways: to the heart of the problem. Now that more platforms offer similar capabilities - though iPhone has big sandboxing and connectivity issues, Android only allows Java apps, Symbian is a pig to code for and (IIRC) only allows applications to support single-duplex audio - that has served mainly to split-up the market. This gives more choice for the consumer in terms of hardware, but ironically makes it more difficult to get all the software you want on your chosen phone. Should you get a Windows Mobile device for application A, or iPhone for application B, or Symbian for application C? What if you want to change platform? Tough: you probably can't bring all your favourite apps with you. Now this might be good for the hardware developer (locking people in to their platforms), but in my opinion this is bad for the consumer.

The applications are what really define the device. You want Halo? You get an XBox. You want Zelda? You get a Wii. If you want Logic, you use a Mac. If you want Microsoft Office, you get a Windows box. Luckily now if you like Open Office, Firefox or other cross-platform tools, you have the option of running on all three main desktop platforms.

When it comes to smaller apps for mobile devices, the sort which are written by smaller developers and which really are what make a phone do what a user wants, and which are a far simpler proposition that the big apps I've just mentioned, you might think that it should surely be possible to write once, and deploy on all the platforms without too much effort? Actually no: it is unbelievably hard work, as you'll have seen from other posts on my blog.

The biggest challenge for mobile software developers, is one of writing an app such that it can reach as much of the market as possible. I can't see many ways to make this easy (apart from using a framework like the one we've painstakingly developed at Intermorphic!); this will lead to each phone platform being a separate island. I can but hope that Antix will succeeed and open up this whole market... which would also allow apps to be written once in C++, and run with binary portability on any device, including TVs, which had the application engine installed.

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