Android, iPhone, BlackBerry: Which OS is best for app development?

With so many different mobile operating systems on the market right now, it can be daunting for an upstart software developer to make a name for itself.

Let's say that you're a software developer who has created a hot new application for smartphones that you're certain is about to take the world by storm. Your work isn't quite done and here's the problem: not only will your brilliant and innovative application have to compete with several other applications that have similar ambitions, but it will have to compete with them over multiple platforms.

With so many different mobile operating systems on the market right now, it can be daunting for an upstart software developer to make a name for itself.

Not surprisingly, there's no one solution for software developers looking to thrive in the mobile application business. Every operating system has different strengths and weaknesses and something to offer developers. Take the iPhone's operating system, which has consistently received praise from users for its ease of use and for hosting an applications store that has well over 100,000 apps to choose from. While this operating systems sounds like a dream for many developers, some have said that the sheer number of apps they have to compete with has made the going tough.

What's stopping mobile apps from taking next step?

"The iPhone is easier to develop for than other operating systems, but harder to make money on," says Paul Reddick, the CEO of software developer Handmark, which specializes in making mobile news applications. "Even though it's relatively easy to get your app onto the App Store, it's not easy when you have 100,000 people that you're rubbing shoulders with. So the key thing is to figure out how get yourself discovered."

Of course, the fact that so many developers want to make applications for the iPhone is more a sign of its success than of weakness. Additionally, some developers say that the device's uniform screen size makes creating applications for it a relative breeze. So while an application designed for BlackBerry or Android devices might have to be tweaked to fit different screen sizes, an app for the iPhone operating system will only have to fit into the iPhone's screen.

"The iPhone's biggest strength from a developer's standpoint is that it's one size fits all," says Keith Pichelman, CEO for Concrete Software, a company that specializes in developing popular games such as Sid Meier's Pirates for mobile platforms. "Those are the big challenges for all the other platforms that have wide variations in screen size."

However, Pichelman says that the operating system that his company has most enjoyed working with so far has been that of  the BlackBerry. (See: Best BlackBerry apps of 2009.)  The best part, he says, has been the helpfulness of Research in Motion, which he says gives Concrete specific guidelines for how to get their apps approved and up on BlackBerry App World.

"They have been extremely helpful with tech contacts and with public relations contacts and it's been that way for years now," he says. "I would love to see Apple take a similar approach. From the outside view they're doing really well but it's just tough from our point of view working with them sometimes where we don't know what they're going to approve and not approve."

Shari Hoffman, the sales and marketing spokesperson for developer DataViz, shares Pichelman's view that RIM is very helpful toward application developers and says that BlackBerry is the only operating system where DataViz's Documents to Go  mobile office suite comes complimentarily on the devices.

"RIM is great to work with at the primary level, and while I can't comment on what it's like working with them on the technical and development side, we haven't heard any complaints about them," she says.

Reddick, however, says that while RIM does a good job of maintaining relationships with developers, BlackBerry's operating system itself can present challenges to developers. For one thing he says that it can be difficult to make a single application that is interoperable with the wide variety of BlackBerry devices.

"BlackBerry is not the easiest operating system to develop for since there are so many different versions of the OS," he says. "So writing things that will work on one device doesn't mean that they will work on others. Something that works on the Tour isn't guaranteed to work on the Bold."

The big wild card to hit the mobile operating system market this year, however, has been Android. Because Google's mobile operating system is open source, any developer can access its source code and create apps without getting a license from Google. Additionally, developers say that it's a breeze to get your application on the Android Market, as Google does not act as a gatekeeper for which applications it allows. Rather, Google allows all apps onto the store and only removes inappropriate apps after they are posted.

2009's most awesome Android apps

Ilya Eliashevsky, the product manager for DataViz's Android product line, says that Android provides a lot of different advantages for smaller developers because it lets developers simply post their app on the store and wait for the money to roll in if it catches a lot of peoples' eyes.

"We created an account, uploaded our apps and then hit submit," he says. "Then the app just started showing up on devices and we saw sales immediately starting to roll in."

Looking more toward the future, Reddick thinks that these features will make Android a major player in attracting Web developers due to its open source structure and the fact that it's started to appear on a large range of devices over the past year.

"I can see Android having a lot of success in the future because it's an open operating system that's going to run across a lot larger range of devices from different manufacturers," he says. "It's beginning to get momentum from the developer community as well… Right now if I were developing an app with the goal of getting near-term cash I would make sure to get it out on BlackBerry and the iPhone, but if I'm going after long-term growth I'd go with Android."

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