Apple's app dominance is ready to be challenged

Editor's Corner
Shane Schick

Leave it to Walter Mossberg to explain what should be glaringly obvious to the entire world. In a recent Wall Street Journal column the gadget guru addressed a question that probably still comes off the lips of its executive readers who buy a Windows Phone 8 device and wonder why it doesn't have Siri.

In "How Apple gets all the good apps," Mossberg points out that unlike Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) or Amazon, which are largely software firms that dabble in hardware, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) relies on stellar smartphone sales to drive the company's innovations and profits. It has been the same model since the days Apple was just a computer company.

While Microsoft licensed Windows to pretty much anyone who would create a chassis for it, Apple has always seen "proprietary" as another way of saying the more attractive word "exclusive." Though he doesn't come out and say so, there's a suggestion that Apple's rivals are little more than hapless dolts who have no choice but to bow to the iPhone maker's dominance. That said, the world wouldn't come to an end if you couldn't get, say, Google Maps on an iPhone:

"Note that I am only talking about apps that are officially published by Apple's rivals themselves, not those from other developers that may mimic or provide workarounds for an app from one rival for another's platform," Mossberg wrote. "And I am not referring to services that can be accessed via the browser on mobile devices, only self-contained apps."

Mossberg's main message is that whether you decide to buy an iPhone or iPad, you can rest assured you'll have access to the widest possible variety of apps. Developers know this already, which is why they nearly always include iOS at the top of their platform priority list at launch.

I wonder, though. Over time, the fact that Apple has all the apps, in part, puts more pressure on the company to deliver ever-more-superior hardware that puts those apps to their best advantage. With its last few releases, Apple doesn't seem to be doing that. What was really that revolutionary about the iPhone 5 other than its size and weight? Does a retina display really make a big difference in the app experiences people are having now?

In contrast, vendors like Samsung and BlackBerry (NASDAQ:BBRY) have both come out with new hardware that includes interface innovations and built-in functionality that almost begs for apps that will show them off. Might there not be an increasing advantage in targeting apps that exploit the Galaxy S4's S Translator or optical reader? What about the interesting-looking BlackBerry 10 enhancements like Pulse, Flow and Peek? These might turn out to be novelties, but with the right apps they could make a convincing case for (gasp!) ditching the iPhone.

I'm not saying to stop developing for iOS--you need to go where the largest audience is. There is something to be said, however, for choosing to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond, especially when that pond could use a little more activity. Admit it: Who wouldn't want to be the developer that proved there are other paths to success than Apple's App Store?--Shane