Develop for Apple, Android or Windows? There's room for everyone at the table

Competition breeds great value and innovation and from that we all benefit

There has been much debate about the preferred wireless platform for application developers. Every platform has its own advantages and challenges, and there are key points developers need to keep in mind when choosing the most appropriate platform for their applications.

Whatever your motivations might be when building applications, there is no dispute about the growing market size for wireless apps. We predict a couple of things to happen in the wireless application development market:

* Applications will evolve to become more intelligent and cohesive. Applications will integrate various services together into one, providing a simplified user interaction flow.

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* There will be a shift in market approach as companies race to be the first to launch new applications on different platforms, and to provide the industry's most innovative, high-quality applications.

* And it will be survival of the most relevant. In a market where there are tens of millions of choices, it is getting harder for application developers to build and sustain end-user interest in the applications they build. Developers/companies who innovate internally and build applications that are highly relevant in solving a specific need in the market will survive

Platform choices will continue to evolve as well, and rapidly. Within a short time we have seen unprecedented dynamics where once dominant players have become a minority and vice versa. And while there has been much focus on open source there remains a strong desire by many players to control their own platform. We believe at any given point in time, the platform players will be playing musical chairs in terms of share in an increasingly opportunistic market. At the ecosystem level we see the players falling into three categories:

1. Leaders: Currently Apple iOS and Android 2. Aspiring Challengers: BB10, Tizen and Windows Phone 8 3. Fading Glory: Symbian, RTOS+Java

Product quality and excellence in go-to-market execution will be the differentiating factors which will decide market position. The market for Android and Apple devices is huge and continues to grow as new apps, features and functionality keep both players running neck and neck for market share. Emerging challengers (or resurrecting companies) like Microsoft with its new Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 will start chipping away at share.

While there's much talk about the preferred platform, the truth is that developers go where the money is first and foremost. In addition, the efforts platform providers take to foster the developer community, such as ease of use and flexibility, plays an important role. Apple/iOS had an early lead but Android is the new No. 1 in terms of handset sales and deployed volumes. The ability to cover basically all phone tiers -- from low-cost smartphones to high-tier flagship devices -- helps manifest the leadership position despite all the legal disputes currently continuing.

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However, from a developer's point of view, maximizing the reach of consumer and enterprise applications is far more complex on Android given the fragmented devices landscape compared to Apple/iOS. Developing applications that work across most deployed Android devices requires a deep understanding of the different device types, as well as some thoughtful consideration in terms of what may be the best release to use for development. This also has hidden costs for issues such as maintenance of multiple application variants.

But amid all the hype and hearsay, it's clear that the current most widely used platforms all have distinct benefits and challenges for end users, developers and mobile network operators (MNO) alike. What is key is understanding what these are and what will best meet the needs of your organization.

Apple iOS: Apple had an early lead in the market and no doubt has become the de facto standard in "coolness." For end users, it's intuitive and user-friendly, with simple instructions and a large range of applications to choose from that are tied to the Apple device ecosystem locking in lifetime users. For the developer, Apple offers a huge market, a sizable base of consumers willing to pay for apps, an excellent toolset and continuous development opportunities at very low cost.

While MNOs receive a large portion of their revenue from the popularity of the iPhone and the ability to offer an assortment of data packages, it brings several challenges to the MNO, including a loss of application and content revenue, high costs for data usage and the prime billing relationship going directly to Apple through the user's AppleID.

Android: While Android has been nipping at the heels of Apple devices for a while, it has always been among the most mature gaming platforms -- still the largest segment for app sales both in terms of the hardware performance and the range of options for software development. With the added support for in-app purchasing -- one of the key monetization vehicles for application developers -- there has been a boost in app revenues. Android is also at the forefront of pushing HTML5 as an open application platform, and bringing the full Chrome browser to Android through the new 4.1 release which will further attract developers.

Getting applications up on Google Play for Android is deemed to be more straightforward than for Apple/iOS. Apple would say its testing is more stringent than Google's but application developers know and are increasingly acting upon the knowledge that if they release poor-quality apps then consumers won't repeat buy.

Windows 8 & Windows Phone 8: Microsoft is going through a massive resurrection. The company is dominant in the desktop/laptop OS market, but has been behind in the smartphone market. It has realized that providing common technologies and the typical "Microsoft" experience across form factors is key to its survival. Now, you will see it moving forward as a company toward the vision that it shared some time back on its 3-screen (i.e., Desktop/Laptop, Mobile Phones, TVs) and cloud strategy.

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With Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, Microsoft has embraced many common technologies that allow developers to build applications that work well across form factors (i.e., use of native C & C++ along with SQLite, DirectX, common NT Kernel, Xbox Live, Metro UI, Office). It also is filling the gaps that existed in areas like device management. This also means that for developers creating cross-platform applications (PC, Xbox, phone, etc.) Microsoft is offering a compelling environment with high levels of reuse. Moving forward, Windows Intune (Microsoft's PC management and security service), coupled with System Center 2012 Configuration Manager Service Pack (SP) 1, will enable administrators to manage Windows RT and Windows Phone 8 devices.

Essentially when comparing Apple/iOS vs. Android vs. Windows from an app developer's perspective, there are key factors to consider:

So while innovation continues at a breakneck pace, what can we expect down the road? Perhaps lower cost devices; an all-screen strategy that uses the same platform across device categories, including TV sets; new services for search and social networking; and of course apps, apps and more apps.

Based on these observations, you make the choice. What is clear regardless of how you choose is that the chatter around the preferred platform will likely continue and that's a good thing. Competition breeds great value and innovation and from that we all benefit.

Read more about anti-malware in Network World's Anti-malware section.

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