Distilling market noise into market sense

VisionMobile is the leading research company in the app economy and mobile business models. Our research and workshops help clients compete and win in their rapidly changing industries.

Mobile Developer Economics: The Building Blocks of Mobile Applications

[In part 3 of the 4-part series on our latest research - Mobile Developer Economics 2010 and Beyond - guest author Tor Björn Minde takes a critical look at the developer sentiments on code development, debugging and support. Full research report available for free download or see part 1 and part 2 of the blog series on mobile developer economics].
The article is also available in Chinese.

Do iOS and Android enjoy a large market penetration? VisionMobile’s research suggests that developers think so even if it is not case for iOS and Android per se; iOS and Android are available in a fraction of devices compared to Symbian and Java ME. Most probably, developers view addressable market in terms of ability to reach a large audience of ‘application consumers’ rather than just a large installed base of handsets.

Developers also consider “quick to code and prototype” as a favourite platform aspect, second only in importance to making money on the platform. This reveals that the ‘fun’ aspect of mobile development co-exists with the realism of money-making in developers’ minds.

The new report Mobile Developer Economics 2010 and Beyond, contains many new insights into mobile development. In this article, I ‘ll  comment on and highlight key take-aways from chapter 3 of the report titled “the building blocks of mobile applications”.

Perceived market penetration should be interpreted as real app usage penetration
There seems to be a contradiction in terms regarding the platform aspect considered ‘best’ by developers. Developers flock onto iOS and Android due to a “perceived” large market share but still there’s a discrepancy between the installed base of the platforms and the number of available apps for each platform. The platforms that have greatest installed base (j2ME, Symbian) have the fewest applications and vice versa.

So, is there (only) a perceived market penetration by the different platforms or are there facts that support the choice?

Looking at some related data points from an Ovum report,  iPhone has 69% of all downloads while Symbian has 9% of all downloads. The report further says that 57% of all downloads in 2009 originated from North America, indicating a high usage pattern among  iOS/Android device users. Users of iPhones and Android devices are more likely to download applications.

Piecing together some more data points on  iOS and Android, specifically app stores’ ease of use, application discovery and the multi-touch experience, reveals an important point; for application developers the addressable market that matters is not just the installed base. While iOS and Android have limited deployments compared to the incumbent platforms, they are indeed ahead of the curve in terms of download share, usage share and ease of use – which explains the developer perception of large market share for iOS and Android. Hence, perceived market penetration should be interpreted as app usage and download share penetration.

It is still fun to code, but money-making rules
Looking at technical reasons that mobile developers consider important when selecting a platform, what sticks out as the favourite reason is “quick to code and prototype”. Moreover, Android, Mobile Web and Flash Lite seem to have the shortest learning curve while Android enjoys the shortest development time.

Developers still consider fun and coding speed as important even if developer mindshare is turning towards the appeal of monetization and reaching a large audience. The technical reasons for selecting a platform seem to be gradually becoming a less important selection criterion. However, developer responses are blurred by ‘soft values’ which affect the answers to the question “What is important”.

A study we did at Ericsson Labs argues that developers, these pioneers of mobile application development, can roughly be grouped into four categories. The answers to the question “What is most important” will be very different between these groups. One developer group has very strong opinions about open-source, another group are mainly focused on a good return on investment, a third group are attracted by the lowest possible barriers to entry and the last group try to keep one hand in every cookie jar.

Future building blocks of mobile applications
In general, mobile web development within an HTML5 browser or web runtime is promising when it comes to market penetration, ease-of-use and cross platform support. At the same time, the VisionMobile study shows several pain-points with mobile web technologies compared to native applications, namely issues with development environments, device API support and UI creation.

We will probably see both environments (native and web) used by developers in the future, both served by app stores and other discovery mechanisms. One could assume that the web runtime will fare better than previous cross-platform initiatives (J2ME, Flash Lite) since there is a large community developing to the web runtime (as opposed to single companies).

Untapped opportunities in developer support
VisionMobile’s study hints at the market gaps in developer support offerings. Developers are most willing to pay for access to hidden APIs – clearly a monetisation opportunity for platform vendors. Premium access to APIs can be delivered by device vendors as a point of differentiation, but it will run counter to cross-device application support of the platform. To achieve both depth of API reach and breadth of cross-device support, we need standards – which interestingly enough are not so important for developers, as VisionMobile’s study reveals.

Finally, VisionMobile suggests that developers use non-vendor sites and developer communities most often for tech support – examples being  Slashdot, Stackoverflow, Daniweb, anddev.org and the Chinese dev site csdn.net. At the same time, our study at Ericsson Labs also found that the main tool developers use for tech support is still regular search engines across tech support or developer communities.

Concluding remarks
All in all, the new VisionMobile report analyses most areas of interest for those who need to understand the developer experience. The knowledge of the developer experience using these ‘first wave’ platforms (what the report refers to as “the Renaissance period”) for mobile application development and marketing is crucial in order to guide the development of future platforms.

-  Tor Björn
follow me at @ericssonlabs.

Full report is available for free download, thanks to the kind sponsorship of Telefonica Developer Communities. You can follow Telefonica Developer Communities through their blog.

Are you a mobile app developer? Want to participate in the next mobile developer research and voice your own opinions on mobile development? Fill out the registration form & we’ll be in touch.

[Tor Björn is head of Ericsson Labs with 25 years experience in mobile multimedia & applications]

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