How does a developer decide on a mobile platform?

Symbian, BlackBerry, Android, iPhone...

I'm developing mobile applications — for the iPhone. Considering all of the mobile platforms available to programmers, why would I select the development platform for the Apple device when I could have chosen Symbian, BlackBerry, or Android?

Let's look at my options.

Symbian, of which there are multiple flavours, has been around for about 10 years, and yet there has been no substantial uptake of the mobile Web. Now owned by Nokia, it will be open-sourced so that may change, but I'll wait and see here.

The BlackBerry is primarily an e-mail device, though it does offer browsing and other applications. Tools are available for development, but it uses Java ME applications, which have a very limited user interface. And the market opportunity is only about 16 million subscribers versus 206 million Symbian devices over the same timeframe. The low subscriber growth rate limits the value of the platform for me.

Android, from Google, is a completely open platform that has the potential to provide most of what the iPhone does. But it isn't real yet, and there are no devices available to test how well it works in real life. With no current subscriber base, it would be a huge risk to develop for what is essentially a non-existent product at this point.

Then there is the iPhone SDK, only available on the Mac, and only capable of building applications for a very small though rapidly growing market of devices right now, with over 6 million in use so far.

I could have picked Symbian, BlackBerry or Android. I could have written software with a minimalist user interface — a watered-down lowest common denominator -- for a fragmented array of mobile devices. And they all provide a Java development option, so my life would have been much easier. But the iPhone SDK has a much bigger advantage.

Since Apple owns the hardware and the operating system, they have created an experience on the iPhone that is virtually identical to that of the Mac. And they have also provided the ability to leverage existing Mac development on the iPhone by providing virtually the same Cocoa Framework as that of the Mac. If you know Mac development, you can develop for the iPhone, or you can easily port your existing code. I haven't developed on the Mac in over a decade, but I was able to pick it up in a couple of days.

And the iPhone has already changed the mobile landscape. iPhone use of the Internet is much higher than that of other smartphones, and far exceeds that of the market in general. Google sees 50 times more search requests coming from iPhones.

The iPhone is going to be the platform that makes the mobile Internet real and usable — essentially a mobile computer — which will drive the adoption of new mobile applications. Once you've touched the screen to follow a link in the exceptionally readable browser, you know that this is the standard by which all future mobile phones will be measured.

My choice was a simple one. I merely selected the platform that has already redefined the mobile phone market. And besides, have you seen the iPhone? It is seriously cool. After all, once you get past all the logical reasons for selecting a platform, every developer wants to work on the cool one.

Larry Borsato has been a software developer, marketer, consultant, public speaker and entrepreneur, among other things. For more of his unpredictable, yet often entertaining thoughts you can read his blog at larryborsato.com.

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Larry Borsato

Computerworld (US)
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