The cross-platform choice developers can't avoid

Editor's Corner
Shane Schick

I've never actually seen a research study that proves it, but I've always assumed that developers' choice of platform for their apps is driven, initially at least, by a single factor: the smartphone they're carrying in their pocket. 

This might not be the case for developers working on enterprise apps, where vendors might conduct surveys and focus groups to determine which OSes are preferred by their target customer. For an indie developer, though, I imagine a process whereby you visualize the interface, navigation and controls through the lens of an iPhone, if you own an iPhone, or an Android device if that's what you use. After all, this will likely be the first place you see the app manifest itself once the final testing process begins, and the best creators often tend to make things designed for customers like themselves.

That's one of the only factors that went unmentioned in a very long but very insightful blog post recently published by Stephen Sinofsky, the former head of the Windows division at Microsoft Corp. In 'Juggling Multiple Platforms and the Bumpy Road Ahead,' Sinofsky offers what some interpret as an explanation (or apology) for the comparative dearth of Windows Phone 8 apps available on the market today. However, the post could also simply be the astute observations of an industry insider who is trying to help the wider market understand why cross-platform support is more difficult than it appears. 

There's far too much in Sinofsky's post to summarize here, but his conclusions echo what I've heard from a number of other developers and industry analysts: "It is clear the approach to cross-platform is shifting from 'obviously we will do multiple platforms' to thinking about which platform comes first, second or third and how many to do...the cross-platform question only gets more difficult if apps take on unique capabilities or user experiences for different sized screens, which is almost certainly the case...The only thing we know for sure is that the APIs, tools and approaches of different platforms will continue to evolve and diverge. Working across platforms will only get more difficult, not easier."

The real challenge, Sinofsky suggests, is to create apps in such a way that no matter what mobile OS you are using, the app looks and feels as though it were specifically created with that platform in mind. In other words, while developers can be strategic in the way they roll out multiple versions of an app, every version needs to seem to consumers as though it were the first choice. 

Of course, there is another option, and in some ways it's far less work. Be exclusive. Focus on doing one thing really well--on one OS--and don't work cross-platform unless the platform offers some opportunity for a unique (and different) experience. Yes, that could mean losing out on a large base of potential users, but how many apps are reaching the saturation point on an individual platform like iOS or Android? What if the money and resources that would be invested in creating multiple versions were spent on marketing or promoting in a single channel? There is power in exclusivity, which is really another word for proprietary: just look at Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) itself.

Sinofsky is right that these decisions are never cut and dry. He is framing a debate that may be forever ongoing. Yet as app stores grow ever larger and iterating across mobile OSes becomes a bigger headache, maybe developers should start thinking less about cross-platform and more about the "right" platform.--Shane