Thoughts on mobile development - Symbian, Blackberry, Android, J2ME and iPhone

Don’t ignore regionality when selecting target mobile OS

By Aaron Davidson, in , posted: 24-Mar-2010 16:09

Back in December I blogged about "Which mobile OS to develop your killer app for?" and went through the various factors that we typically consider with a client.  One of the factors was "What is their target geographic and which devices are prevalent in the geographic?".

I think people too often overlook the importance of regionality in their rush to pick whatever their favourite OS is as the target platform.  The importance of regionality was driven home to me once again in some recent Admob stats.

I think this graph (courtesy of Admob) illustrates my point perfectly:

Mobile OS share for all regions

If you are developing an application for Oceania, naturally you would target iPhone OS and potentially Symbian OS.  There would appear to be next to no business case for developing a WebOS app.  Correspondingly, if you are developing an application targeting Africa, naturally you would naturally target Symbian OS and potentially iPhone OS.  You definitely would not develop a Symbian app targeted at North America but you might develop iPhone and Android versions.

What this data tells us is that if your application is going to marketed in a specific region then the huge variations in market share between regions make using "global" statistics dangerous.  If you are considering a regionally targeted application then you need to use regionally specific data when making your decision.

The obvious rider to this is that if there are such wide variations regionally, are their subregional variations?  The answer of course is Yes!  Admob also supplied data for South East Asia:

Breakdown of OS share within SE Asia

While Symbian OS has a 69% marketshare in Asia as a whole this increases to 77% in SE Asia.  Similarly, while iPhone OS has a 27% marketshare in Asia as a whole this falls to just 19% in SE Asia.  In this particular case the data probably would not alter your decision which would be that if you are developing an app that targets SE Asia you should definitely develop a Symbian app and consider an iPhone application.  The data does however illustrate that its not always a good idea to even use regional or subregional data.  If you are targeting just a single country then you should use data for just that country as part of your decision.  Match your data to your target geography.

So regionality is a key consideration when considering which mobile OS to choose.  Having read this post however don't jump to the conclusion that its the only thing you need to consider!  Remember, as my original December post pointed out, regionality is just one of the things that you should consider before making a final decision.

One last rider, when looking at any data, regional or otherwise, do take the time to understand how it was compiled.  I have been rather cavalier in referring to Admob's data because to talk about how it was derived in the middle of things would have just distracted from the whole point I was trying to make.  In Admob's case, their data is an OK but not great proxy for the actual mobile OS marketshare as it is compiled from "ad requests we receive from our network of more than 15,000 mobile Web sites and iPhone and Android applications".  So of course Admob's data will be skewed in accordance with its collection methodology, self selection bias etc.  Admob discuss their methodology here.

I can just hear people now, "Perhaps it would just be easier to choose my favourite OS"!

Windows Phone 7 looking good. Demo looking better.

By Aaron Davidson, in , posted: 22-Mar-2010 13:13

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Earlier today I received an email from "Windows Phone News", I assume because years ago we signed up to the Microsoft Developer Program.  It included a link to a Microsoft Demo showcasing the new Windows Phone 7 UI.  To be honest we haven't taken much notice of Windows Mobile over the years.  Mostly because we've been kept busy enough on the other platforms but for sure there was also an element of none of our clients ever asking us to develop for it as well!

So I thought I'd take a look at this demo.  And it actually looks pretty good.  I know most demo's do, so we'll just have to wait until devices are released, but if they're true to the demo then Microsoft may have found a way back into the game after its time in the mobile wilderness.  The touch based UI seem responsive and intuitive and the graphics not completely ugly.

Picture of Windows Phone 7 microsoft-windows-phone-7-series-3

Best thing by far about the demo was the ability to customise the video backgrounds playing behind the phone in the foreground.  Through good luck the first background to play was "Beach", showing a bikini clad nymphets run past and begin frolicking in the water during sunset.  There were 7 other video backgrounds that randomly played as well, so something for everyone I guess including Yoga fans.

After luring me to their web page and tantalising me with nymphets Microsoft had me interested enough to look around a bit.  A shame that the rest of the site was focused on Windows Mobile 6.5.  Even the feature comparison table only compared Windows Mobile 6.0, 6.1 and 6.5.  So aside from the nice demo, I'm none the wiser!

Nokia Developer Day, Sydney 2 March 2010

By Aaron Davidson, in , posted: 5-Mar-2010 17:09

Earlier this week our CTO, Greg Amer, attended Nokia's Sydney Developer Day.  This is a great opportunity to meet other developers, hear about new initiatives that Nokia is undertaking and meet people from the Forum Nokia Asia-Pac team.

Gregs top 10 take-away's from this years Developer Day were, in no particular order:
  1. Ovi stats show that in Australasia "fremium" is currently the most successful business model for mobile applications.
  2. The majority of downloads from Ovi today are from touchscreen devices.  Nokia's suggestion is that if handling touch and non-touch in the same app is a problem for you, just support touch.
  3. Ovi globally averages 12 downloads per customer.
  4. Be careful about introducing advertising into your applications.  Mobile devices are intensely personal to users and they can react strongly to intrusive advertising messages.  Advertising should absolutely handle orientation changes.
  5. Eye candy trumps features and functionality.  So does useability.  So feel free sacrifice features and functionality.  Spend money on UI and user experience.
  6. Symbian Signing will get cheaper on June 9.  We've never had a problem with Symbian Signed but it was clearly causing problems for some people and Nokia indicated it would be overhauled to become simpler still (June 9 also).
  7. The first version of Meego will be available some time in the 2nd quarter of this year, devices will follow in the 3rd or 4th quarter.  QT on Maemo/Meego has a long way to go but Nokia are working really hard on it.
  8. Nokia are planning to bundle data plans with some devices this year (just like it already bundles music with some devices).  Sounds interesting but no idea how that will work.  Will I be able to buy the same device sans data plan?  Presumably not or I could then just immediately work out how much the data bundle is worth to me ...
  9. Home screen widgets are de rigueur - 80% of the time that people spend looking at a device is spent looking at the home screen.  If you want their eye-balls then add a home screen widget to your application.
  10. While the S60 UI layer (Avkon) may not ship in Symbian^4 you will be able to bundle it your applications for backwards compatibility.
All of the presentations and slides are apparently going to be made available in due course so will update you with those details when we get them.  In the mean time here are a couple of static pics of the presenters and bloggers lounge:

Purnima Kochikar - VP Forum NokiaEmile Baak - MD Nokia Australia New ZealandBloggers Lounge - where is Mauricio?

By all reports it was a great day.  A long day though since Greg hauled himself to Sydney on the redeye and then back home again on the last flight out!

To finish up, perhaps the coolest thing on the day was the video playing of the N95 power cube solving robot.  Perhaps the only think cooler would have been if the robot had actually been there itself.  Here's a youtube clip if your interested.

Which mobile platforms do developers love?

By Aaron Davidson, in , posted: 15-Feb-2010 16:12

Well Flurry released its periodical Smartphone Industry Pulse a couple of days ago.  Here at SimWorks we love Flurry and I plan to write about it in-depth at some point.  Suffice it to say that Flurry's analytics are in most mobile apps released today, including ours, which puts Flurry in a unique position to identify interesting trends across platforms, geographies etc.

Flurry's report identified two interesting facts:

1.  Android and iPhone users use their phones in very similar ways, using the same sort of apps for around the same length and number of times per month (with the exception of games, which Android users would seem to play about twice as much of, slackers!).  These graphs provided by Flurry illustrate the point:

Average sessions per month by category

Average length of each session

What these graphs show is that Android and iPhone users use roughly the same types of apps roughly the same number of times each month (first graph) and secondly that each time an Android or iPhone user uses an app of a given type they use it for roughly the same length of time (second graph).

2.  Many many more iPhone apps are being developed than Android apps.  In January this year alone over 1600 new iPhone apps were started compared to just under 300 new Android apps.  On the one hand, this stat is not so surprising as there are of course many many times more iPhone users than Android users, so the market opportunity is potentially larger and more attractive on the iPhone side of things.  On the other hand, with well over 100,000 applications already available, it is surprising to see so many new application starts on the iPhone platform.  Just how many good ideas are there out there for mobile applications anyway?  Encouragingly for a mobile application developer such as SimWorks, the answer would appear to be lots and lots.  Flurry also has some pretty graphs to illustrate this point if you're interested.

Actually the January results reported by Flurry are a big shift from December when the trend had been for new Android application starts slowly catching up to new iPhone application starts.  iPhone pulled ahead again significantly in January which Flurry puts down to Apple's iPad announcement reinvigorating developer interest in the platform.  That seems like a pretty unlikely explanation unless you believe that the iPad will introduce some significant new use-cases and so the upsurge is in fact iPad application starts.  The truth will out once the iPad is actually released and Flurry begins to collect device data.

Flurry also included a graphical representation of the relative developer support for the iPhone and Android platforms which some commentators have proceeded to completely misinterpret.  This graph shows out of 100% the relative number of projects started in any given month for iPhone and Android:

Relative android v iphone new application starts

Naturally you could have application starts for both platforms increasing every month but if one is increasing each month as a % of the overall starts then it will appear that developer commitment to the other platform is waning leading to some quite misleading misunderstandings, such as:

"While stats like this can certainly be misleading, it almost appears as if a small pocket of developers are jumping ship with every tempting Android or Apple-related project that comes up."

It is unfortunate that the author highlighted how misleading such statistics can be and then proceeded to completely mislead his readers.

The thing that I took from all of this is that iPhone and Android users aren't that different afterall.  They use their devices similarly, purchase similar sorts of apps which they use with a similar sort of frequency.  You can probably extrapolate then that a popular app on iPhone will probably be popular on Android and vice versa and by extension, although Flurry do not have the data to show it, on Symbian and other platforms.

The emperors new clothes

By Aaron Davidson, in , posted: 25-Jan-2010 15:02

Symbian is a rock solid super capable operating system.  From earlier posts you'll have gathered that we like it and do quite a bit of development for it.  Symbian OS still powers the majority of the worlds smartphones but, relative to the user experience offered by the iPhone and Android devices, it has been let down by its tired clunky UI.

That the Symbian UI needs a huge overhaul is not news and not just our opinion - Nokia has itself said as much.  The shortcomings of the Symbian UI became immediately apparent one night nearly 2 1/2 years ago when the first iPhone was launched.  The iPhone UI of course is gorgeous and is a big part of why the iPhone has gone from strength to strength during that time.

The Symbian UI today is pretty much the same as it was when the iPhone launched.  Sure there's been some tweaking around the edges and Nokia bolted a touch UI onto it, but it is still basically the same tired clunky old UI.  So what on earth have Nokia been doing for the last 2 1/2 years?!  If it was so obvious the Symbian UI needed fixing why hasn't it been?

With the benefit of hindsight and in the absence of an explicit explanation from Nokia, here's my view.  Around the time Apple launched its iPhone Nokia already had years of smartphone dominance under its belt.  Nokia no doubt immediately appreciated the superiority of the iPhone UI and understood that it needed to respond however it also appreciated another emerging trend that it would need to respond to: open source operating systems.

You would think that an organisation of Nokia's scale could take on both of these issues simultaneously.  It would seem not however.  Instead Nokia looks to have pondered its options and at last reached a decision a full year after Apple launched the iPhone.  Nokia announced in June 2008 that it had agreed to purchase all of the outstanding shares in Symbian and then open source the Symbian OS.  This remarkable announcement set in motion a course of work that would essentially consume Nokia's Symbian development resources for a couple of years during which all proprietary elements of the Symbian source code needed to be expunged, open source infrastructure set up etc.

Nokia made a call that it could deal with the UI issue later but that it needed to deal with the open source issue immediately.  Nokia's choice has lead to years of delay in responding to the competitive threat posed by Apple and now Android.  Consumers actually care how easy to use and nice looking their phone UI is and whether Nokia could actually afford to put off dealing with the UI issue only time will tell.

Now at last it appears that there may be some momentum building to address this long-standing UI deficit.  Last December Nokia CEO, Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, promised:

"In 2010, we will drive user experience improvements, and the progress we make will take the Symbian user interface to a new level. As an operating system, Symbian has reach and flexibility like no other platform, and we have measures in place to push smartphones down to new price points globally, while growing margins. I see great opportunity for Nokia to capture new growth in our industry, by creating what we expect to be the world's biggest platform for services on the mobile."

If you think like me then you probably wondered at the time, "Why is Nokia making announcements about the future of the Symbian OS?  Shouldn't the Symbian Foundation itself be making such announcements?".  While Nokia did not clarify this in its December 2009 announcement what is actually happening is that Nokia, as a contributing member of the Symbian Foundation, will make a proposal to the Symbian Foundation in relation to a new Symbian UI.  If that proposal is accepted then the proposed work will be integrated into the Symbian^4 workflow.

Earlier this month Nokia's December announcement crystallised in a follow-up announcement that Nokia had delivered its proposal for a revised Symbian UI to the Symbian Foundation for consideration.  The proposal is available here.

So the wheels are in motion but they grind ever so slowly.  Notwithstanding Mr Kallasuvo's announcement last year that we would see the fruits of Nokia's UI work this year, that is not backed up by Symbian's own release plan.  If we're going to have to wait until Symbian^4 for any sort of material UI improvement then we won't actually see devices in the marketplaces until late 2011.  That's right, late 2011 - potentially 4 1/2 years since Apple showed the world what the next evolution in the mobile UI would look like.  With Symbian only now beginning to address the issue of its weak UI the question that has to be asked, even if it achieves all that it hopes with Symbian^4, what will happen in the marketplace between now and then that it won't be reacting too.  By 2011 the emperors new clothes may be no more than hand me downs.

Here's some pics of the new UI design proposed by Nokia:

Proposed Symbian UI homescreen   Proposed Symbian UI photogralleryProposed Symbian UI videoplayer

Which mobile OS to develop your killer app for?

By Aaron Davidson, in , posted: 9-Dec-2009 17:04

Behind "How much will this cost" the most common question clients ask us is "What platform(s) should we develop for?".  Both eminently sensible questions with the later not having a simple answer.

Determining which platform(s) to develop for is a client specific enquiry depending on a number of factors:
  1. What is their target demographic and which devices is that demographic using?
  2. What is their target geographic and which devices are prevalent in the geographic?
  3. What are the technical requirements for the app (GPS, touch screen, background operation).
  4. What is the business model (free, paid for app, advertising funded, in app purchases).
  5. Do they have any inhouse development/graphic design capability?  If so then perhaps there is an argument that they can undertaken the prototyping on whatever platform that is to iterate through small screen usability and comms issues that can be expensive to tackle externally.
  6. Are there any strategic reasons to prefer or include a certain platform (you have a pre-existing relationship, it'll ship on device, no of units shipped, device coolness factor etc).
Our clients typically do not thank us for this information as they wanted a simple answer not an assignment!  Working through each of these will deliver you a reasoned answer.

For all that the answer must be client specific, with the usual caveats, years of experience can be boiled down to a few high level guides:
  1. If it is a consumer oriented app targeted at developed countries then probably start with an iPhone build.  The iPhone platform has tremendous momentum, a great toolset, delightful useability and a solid installed base with users familiar with the idea of using (and paying for) mobile applications;
  2. If it is an enterprise application for North America or Asia Pac then probably start with a Blackberry Build;
  3. If it is an enterprise application targeted at European market then probably start with either a Symbian or Blackberry build;
  4. Do not build a Windows Mobile or WebOS application without an extremely good reason.  Windows Mobile has lost a lot of marketshare over the last few years and has a lot of ground to make up before it becomes a strong contender for mobile application development.  WebOS looks very interesting and with few applications available provides a good opportunity to stand out but marketshare is so low at present that it will be difficult to make a return on investment; and
  5. If you don't actually need to leverage any of the underlying native capabilities of a device consider developing a webkit based application (allowing you to go cross platform).
The answer that falls out of this process won't necessarily be that there is one best OS for you.  In fact I was really interested to read recently that research on "well funded" US startups showed that more than 75% were pursuing a multi-platform strategy while over 50% were developing their applications for all six of the major mobile platforms (Android, iPhone, Palm, Blackberry, Symbian and Windows).  So the answer seems to be that if you have enough money build for everything.  Naively I'm assuming that these well-funded startups are choosing to develop for six mobile platforms simultaneously because they have done their homework rather than because they couldn't decide.  As an aside, SimWorks welcomes enquiries from all well funded US startups!

Mobile is an incredibly dynamic market so these are today's rules of thumb only.  5 years ago my answer would have been much simpler:  Symbian!

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Aaron Davidson
New Zealand

Co-founder and CEO of SimWorks - New Zealands leading developer of mobile applications.

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