Make room for another player on the application-store bandwagon. Verizon this week said it is building a storefront for its Hub, a device designed to serve as an Internet-enabled wireless device for the kitchen counter. The carrier joins countless others who offer — or plan to offer — app stores, and plenty more are on the way. Apple, whose App Store is nearing the 1 billion-download mark, has dramatically proven the need for a new distribution model for mobile content. But as carriers, OEMs and a host of others join the craze, the big question is, who can catch Steve Jobs?
For the short-term, at least, the answer may be nobody. Yes, Nokia (which is building out its Ovi offering) and Research In Motion (which two weeks ago launched its BlackBerry application store) have a considerable advantage when it comes to the number of addressable handsets. T-Mobile, which launched its App Store last fall, boasts a broad user base and a wide variety of phones on which to run applications. Verizon, though it also has a diverse collection of handsets and a broad user base in the mobile handset space, is targeting a minuscule audience in Hub owners.
There are nuanced differences in strategies between each group of players, of course: OEMs are looking to sell high-margin hardware, carriers want to ramp up the recurring revenues that subscriptions bring, and straight-ahead storefronts such as Handango are simply chasing retail revenues. But most of the app vendors on the field are looking to establish a relationship with users, to become the go-to destination for applications and, eventually, a cloud-based storage facility for a user’s contacts, calendar and mobile content. And so far, at least, only Apple has found a sizable audience by comining a gotta-have device with a big-budget marketing effort and a developer-friendly environment.
While there are plenty of reasons mobile data failed to get legs in its early days, it’s that third component — a thriving developer community — that has proved most elusive for carriers and other players in the value chain. As RIM demonstrated just this week, building an ecosystem where developers can innovate and easily offer their wares isn’t easy. Space on the carrier deck is notoriously difficult to come by, requiring burdensome certification processes and costly porting mandates for dozens of handset models. Even Google — which should know better — last year had to quell a revolt from developers when it failed to keep coders in the loop with an updated Android SDK.
“There’s an interesting discussion floating around that a fanatical devotion to iPhone is blinding mobile developers to larger potential markets,” Mike Rowehl, former director of technology for AdMob, wrote on his blog this week. “There’s been little help from handset manufacturers (for developers), little help from operating system providers, and really no help at all from carriers (although they’ll be very quick to tell you otherwise)…. Apple has exposed the fact that the lack of progress in mobile wasn’t something inherent with the system.”
The App Store isn’t a perfect retailer, of course, and Apple has drawn ire from some developers and publishers who claim the company is too eager to play nanny and reject apps that are too controversial. But developers are quick to praise the iPhone’s Objective C layout code as well as the App Store’s quick approval process and broad reach. If anything, some have argued, Apple makes it too easy to build and distribute mobile apps, lowering quality standards.
That’s a problem most platforms and app stores would love to have, of course, as they pursue perhaps the most prized trophies in mobile content today: developers.