The battle of mobile software apps

Imagine if makers of, say, vacuum cleaners needed to design different models for different stores. One for Wal-Mart (WMT), another for Target (TGT), another for Tesco (TSCO.L), and yet another for Carrefour (CARR.PA). That's a bit what it's like to be in the business of writing programs for mobile phones.

Online marketplaces for software applications and other services are proliferating. Among companies announcing new online stores at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona were Nokia (NOK), Microsoft (MSFT), French wireless carrier Orange (FTE), and Germany's Deutsche Telekom (DT). They'll sell everything from simple applications that tell you the weather to more complex navigation software to help you find your way.

Increasingly, such online software marketplaces are a key way for companies to make their handsets more attractive while also generating revenue. 'A device alone is not enough anymore,' Nokia Chief Executive Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo told a small group of reporters at the congress, the wireless industry's largest gathering. 'The 'wow' comes from the combination of the device with services.'

Rival mobile operating systems

The problem for people who write mobile software is that different handset brands use different operating systems"”each with its own requirements. Someone writing a program that, for example, tracks a user's favorite football teams has to do different versions for Apple (AAPL) phones, Nokia phones, or Research In Motion (RIMM) BlackBerrys.

And there's no sign that the mobile industry is moving toward a single, dominant operating system as exists in the PC universe with Microsoft Windows. On the contrary, mobile operating systems are multiplying. Google (GOOG) is putting its formidable financial resources and engineering talents behind its Android operating system. Britain's Vodafone (VOD) said Feb. 17 it will join the carriers offering phones with Google's OS, launching an Android-based Magic phone from Taiwanese handset maker HTC in Britain, Spain, Germany, France and Italy this spring. (For a look at this and other phones announced at the conference, see our slide show.)

Microsoft, a minor player in mobile operating systems with just 12% of the smartphone market, is making a renewed push in the wireless world as well. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer made a personal appearance in Barcelona to present a new version of Windows Mobile as well as plans for an online applications store.

But others in the industry doubt whether Windows Mobile can compete with the Apple iPhone, which has proved popular with software developers, or the Symbian operating system used by Nokia, which now accounts for nearly half the smartphone market. 'Windows Mobile could be the odd man out,' says Rob Glaser, CEO of RealNetworks (RNWK).

For consumers, competition in operating systems is probably a good thing. But for developers the competing systems force them to make difficult choices. They can write different versions of the same program for every operating system, which is time-consuming and expensive. Or they can target whichever operating systems they think will generate the most users"”and forsake the rest.

Mobile developers get a new Java software

One company that has confronted the problem is MySpace, the social networking site now owned by News Corp. (NWS), which like other Internet-based businesses is making its content available on smartphones. 'In the early days we tried to do separate applications for every carrier and handset on a global basis.


We quickly found out that was impossible,' says Chris DeWolfe, founder and CEO of MySpace. When MySpace developed a new application for smartphones last year, it chose first to target iPhone and BlackBerry users.

The decision to write the program for iPhones first was a 'no-brainer,' DeWolfe says. While Apple's share of the mobile OS market is only 12%, its users are well off and use their iPhones intensely for other purposes than just talking. Apple's widely admired 'app store,' with thousands of programs that can be downloaded onto iPhones and the iPod Touch, has helped make those devices more useful and boosted sales.

Software companies are trying to make it easier for developers to convert their programs for different handsets. At the Mobile World Congress, Sun Microsystems (JAVA) unveiled a new version of Java for mobile devices called JavaFX. Sun says the programming software allows developers to write applications that work on any mobile operating system.

If that turns out to be true, JavaFX is a potentially important development. 'They can get their code done for less money and get more users, which is really the Holy Grail for developers,' says Eric Klein, vice-president for Java marketing at Sun Microsystems.

Will JavaFX be a breakthrough‾

Java, of course, is already the programming software lurking behind many Web applications. JavaFX is designed for mobile devices, and according to the company will also be easier to use than standard Java. You probably need a degree in computer science to deal with Java, but Web developers and others with less training should be able to use JavaFX. 'There's a whole new class of people building content who don't have programming backgrounds,' Klein says.

The question is whether JavaFX will be suitable for all programs, particularly those such as games that use a lot of processing power. In addition, some people in the industry say that programs which run on top of operating system software may use substantially more battery power. And it's just one of a host of software tools designed to make it easier to write programs for multiple platforms. Nokia has a program known as QT, pronounced 'cute,' which it obtained when it bought mobile Linux software maker Trolltech.

There is heavy momentum in the industry to overcome the polyglot nature of mobile-phone software. Wireless carriers sell a variety of handsets and want to be able to offer programs that work on any of them. Eventually, the market may converge around a smaller number of operating systems. In the meantime, developers have to cope with the complexity. Says MySpace CEO DeWolfe, 'When someone comes out with a new device, you just have to go with your gut.'

Ewing is BusinessWeek's European regional editor.