Sometime in the near future, Apple (s AAPL) is going to announce that a billion little apps have been download for use on its iPhone and iPod touch platforms. As of yesterday, about 945 million apps had been download. That translates to about 31 apps per iPhone/iPod touch out there. As it crosses the billion-apps mark, the company is showing that once again it has been able to take an existing, mundane business and turn it on its head. It panned a lead mine and struck gold. When the company took on the seemingly moribund music downloads business and turned it into a constantly clanging cash register, its detractors often bemoaned its autocratic ways and tight control of the iPod ecosystem. Apple, nevertheless, changed consumers’ behavior from downloading music on Napster to actually paying for it, and in the process, it became the largest digital downloads retailer.
Something similar is going on with mobile apps and the iPhone/iPod touch ecosystem. Apple certainly isn’t the first company to have apps for its platform — that honor goes to Palm (s PALM), which ruled the PDA planet, thanks to its thousands of developers. Nokia (s NOK), Microsoft (s MSFT) and RIM (s RIMM) have had developers writing clever apps for their Symbian, Windows Mobile and BlackBerry operating systems.
But neither the handset makers, the carriers, or even the OS vendors were able to create a user experience that allowed us to browse, search and download the app that really mattered. Perhaps they didn’t care enough — so long as the mobile industry maintained its status quo. Mike Rowehl, a mobile industry insider, writes:
The entire system was deadlocked cause no one with the power to was really interested in shaking it up. We kept getting fed excuse after excuse justifying the general lack of forward progress on all fronts. But then something comes along that makes it easy, often profitable, and frequently even fun to develop for mobile again. Apple has exposed the fact that the lack of progress in mobile wasn’t something inherent in the system. That someone with the right motivation can really shake things up and get the train moving again.
Since Apple’s iTunes for apps, almost everyone has jumped on the App-store bandwagon. RIM just announced its very competent App World store for BlackBerry. Microsoft is cooking one up, and Nokia has Ovi. Google has its Android Market. Every carrier is cooking up its own version of the app store. The current app store market is no different from the digital music download business in 2005. The market confusion helped Apple eventually become the dominant player, with Amazon presenting the only viable challenge.
Ask mobile app developers, and an overwhelming number are going for iPhone platform first, everything else later. Rowehl writes:
I’ve developed for just about every platform, and I know the ecosystem extremely well. It’s not that I’m blind to everything else. I know everything else that’s out there, and because of that I’ve chosen to develop for iPhone.
He’s not alone, as I pointed out earlier. According to some reports, Nokia’s Ovi store is being ignored by developers, even though Nokia ships many millions of smartphones every month. It seems folks at Nokia are aware of the problem at hand, though I’m not sure they quite get the extent of the apathy among developers. Earlier this month, when I met Anssi Vanjoki, executive V-P of markets at Nokia, the discussion unsurprisingly shifted toward Apple’s iPhone and the developer momentum.
“There is momentum with other platforms, which is good for the industry, as developers are now thinking about developing for mobile devices,” Vanjoki said. “But the situation is not static, and when products like N97 come to market, lots of people will develop for Nokia. We have to show volume, ease of development and show them (developers) the money.” Nokia clearly has its work cut out for it, if developers like Rowehl are any indication.
From a consumer perspective, what really matters to me is the long-tail of apps that are easy to find, download and install. I may have given up on AT&T’s (s T) iPhone, but I have not given up on the iPhone platform. Why? Because of the applications.
On my iPod Touch, I have three dozen apps installed, only a handful of them (like Facebook, NetNewsFire and Last.fm) that are free. Some are part of my daily work and play life: Sonus Controller, MLB.com At Bat, Plusmo’s Mobicast, Evernote, Skype and Truphone. There are others that are indispensable to me: iBP, Weight Track and Blood Sugar. Prior to downloading these apps, I recorded my daily blood pressure, weight and glucose levels on a piece of paper, entering the data into a spreadsheet later and mailing it to my doctor every month. These obscure apps aren’t likely to be on the top 10 anytime soon, but they are on my top 10.
As Apple’s latest TV spots for the iPhone say, “There is an app for pretty much everything.” With nearly a billion downloads, you can say that again. To all the other contenders, good luck catching up.
(*) 945 million apps divided by 30 million iPod touches and iPhones.