Cloud Four Blog

Technical notes, War stories and anecdotes

Portland’s Mobile Developers, Cloud Four Featured in Oregon Business Magazine

This month’s issue of Oregon Business magazine has a feature story on Portland’s burgeoning mobile scene. We’re pleased that both Cloud Four and Mobile Portland are both mentioned prominently in the article.

Jason Grigsby, Cloud Four; Jon Maroney, Handmark; and Andrew Stern, Stumptown Games

One of the angles that Adrianne, the article’s author, explored was whether or not Portland had a reasonable claim to be a hub of mobile activity. This is something that Rick Turoczy has asserted many times.

When I first started talking to Adrianne about this idea, I was very resistant to it. Yet time after time we’d talk about a particular mobile topic and then we’d find someone in the area working in that space.

I was particularly happy when we got an opportunity to do a photo shoot with Jon Maroney of Handmark (formerly Free Range) and Andrew Stern of Stumptown Games. My conversation with Jon after a Portland Ad Federation event was one of the spurs to get Mobile Portland started. It was a blast seeing Apple feature Andrew’s game at the WWDC’s keynote.

Both Andrew and Jon work in our building. AboutUs is also in the same building, and they play host to Mobile Portland meetings.

By the end of the interviews with Adrianne, I had become a convert about mobile in Portland. We’ve got something special going here. And I’m pleased to realize not only that, but that the businesses in our building play a central role in that community.

Carriers, App Store and Mobile Web: Six Factors for App Distribution Success

Last January, I wrote about how the iPhone App Store was the surprise story of 2008.

Web 2.0 -- Web-based Apps, Services & Mashups, Software as Service, Cloud Computing vs. iPhone App Store: Native Apps, Few APIs between apps, No Recurring Revenue, Local Storage

Flickr photo by Civisi:

The point of my previous post was how the iPhone App Store ran contrary to the prevailing technology trends. Particularly when it comes to the trends that we’ve come to think of when we talk about Web 2.0.

However, from the perspective of the mobile industry, the iPhone App Store presents several breakthroughs and its success isn’t surprising at all.

The iPhone App Store vs. Carrier Application Distribution

Apple’s ability to convince AT&T to let it release an App Store that Apple controlled was ground breaking. Because of this, the App Store was a significant leap ahead of what had come before. Here are some of the factors that we looked at when comparing the development platforms:

How difficult is it to become a developer for a platform? What hoops do you have to jump through to get permission?
Entry Cost
Assuming you can get permission, how much do you have to pay to develop and sell software for a given platform?
Revenue Split
How much of the revenue will you have to share?
Can you publish anything you like? How much outside influence is there on the software or content you want to publish?
How difficult is it to release your software? What are the review cycles?
How easy it for you to sell your software? Is there a good system for purchasing small amounts?

We took those six characteristics and compared the iPhone App Store to what previous model where the carriers where the gatekeepers to a mobile application’s success:

Carriers App Store
Openness Closed, Seek permission Open to anyone who signs agreement
Entry Cost Thousands of dollars $99
Revenue Split 60/40 to 50/50 70/30
Restrictions Many Few
Releases Difficult, Not Timely 1 to 2 weeks
Micropayments Inconsistent, Troublesome iTunes account for every phone

Looking at those six factors in the table above, it is clear why the iPhone App Store represented such a significant departure from what was previously available to developers.

The barriers to entry are lower which means that more developers are participating in and there is more buzz surrounding the App Store than any of the previous models could have hoped to achieve.

How does this compare to the mobile web?

How does the mobile web compare to the App Store? Let’s take a look at those six factors again:

App Store Mobile Web
Openness Open to anyone who signs agreement Completely Open
Entry Cost $99 None
Revenue Split 70/30 100%
Restrictions Few None
Releases 1 to 2 weeks Instantaneous
Micropayments iTunes account for every phone No perfect solution

For five of the six factors, the mobile web has an advantage over the App Store.

This Doesn’t Mean the Mobile Web is No-brainer

Despite the fact that five out of the six factors favor the mobile web does not necessarily mean that the mobile web is the best strategy at this moment in time.

The lack of a consistent payment model for the mobile web is no small thing. It is a huge hindrance for mobile web adoption.

At the same time, lots of test are going on right now to try to allow people to purchase real world goods like groceries using their mobile phones. If in the future you will be able to buy a bottle of water using your phone, I’m certain you’ll be able to buy digital goods like mobile web applications and services through your phone.

In addition, there are good reasons why people choose to build native applications that have nothing to do with the application distribution mechanism. We’ll cover those factors in a later post.

So what does this mean? Future Possibilities

When I look at these six factors, it says to me that in the long run, the mobile web will be a distribution mechanism equal to or better than App Stores because of the freedom and control that it gives developers.

In the short run, the lack of consistent micropayments for the mobile web makes it very challenging compared to the iPhone App Store.

If there was one thing that would make the mobile web more successful, it would be a consistent mechanism for paying for mobile web services and applications.

What does “Mobile” mean?

Tonight at Mobile Portland, there will be a presentation about Moblin. Moblin is an open source operating system for netbooks and mobile internet devices.

This presentation has caused me to reconsider what we mean when we say “mobile?”

Usually when I’m say mobile, I’m talking about almost exclusively about mobile phones. I’m interested in mobile phones because they go everywhere with people and they are nearly always connected to the Internet.

However, it’s not a stretch in any way to think of the iPod Touch as simply an extension of Apple’s iPhone plan. If you forget about the iPod Touch simply because it isn’t a phone, you miss out on a significant number of iPhone OS users.

So if we include the iPod Touch, should we also include devices like the PlayStation Portable which also includes Wi-Fi and Internet browsing?

Photo of PlayStation Portable browser

PlayStation Portable Browser from / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

What about Netbooks? Both Moblin and Google Chrome OS are designed to compete for these new devices that place a premium on mobility instead of the horsepower that we’ve become accustom to when thinking about laptop computers.

And why not laptop computers? I was reading article recently that talked about the impact mobility has had on large businesses. The article wasn’t talking about mobile phones. It was focused on laptops instead of desktop machines.

Finally, there are these new devices that aren’t quite phones, but aren’t laptops or netbooks either—the Mobile Internet Device (MIDs).

Photo of MIDs

MIDs from / CC BY-NC 2.0

MIDs are larger than smartphones, but smaller than netbooks and tablets. They often have touchscreens and small keyboards. They are designed primarily for web usage.

How do MIDs fit with other mobile devices?

I’m not sure. At the moment, I’m not sure where we draw the line between any of these devices.

In fact, that’s one of the reasons I’m so happy we’re getting a chance to hear from some of the developers of Moblin today at Mobile Portland.

If you haven’t RSVP for Mobile Portland yet, please do so now. You don’t want to miss this opportunity to learn more about these new devices and what open source can contribute via the Moblin initiative.

Why Apple’s Failure with iPhone Web Applications Doesn’t Matter

Here is the story many people would like you to believe:

Apple told developers that the only way to build applications for the iPhone was to use web technology. Developers didn’t go for it so Apple eventually caved and created the native iPhone SDK.

Ergo, attempts like those by Google to make mobile web applications the centerpiece of a mobile strategy are doomed to fail.

Wrong! Apple’s failure with iPhone web applications does not matter when it comes to the future of mobile web applications.

Here’s why Apple’s experiment wasn’t a good test:

  • Apple’s web-only development wasn’t mobile — Not in any way. There was no access to geolocation, accelerometer, offline mode, or the camera. The only thing mobile was the fact you were constrained to a small screen.
  • Apple’s own apps weren’t built using web technology — “Do as we say not as we do” didn’t go over well with developers. If you’re going to make the argument, you need to lead by example like Palm has.
  • The Original iPhone was Slow — People have forgotten that the original iPhone only ran on the edge network. The iPhone OS has had two major releases that included performance optimizations. Javascript performance in the iPhone OS 3.0 is 3 times faster on the same hardware. And “iPhone 3GS Javascript performance blows away rivals and approaches MacBook speed.”
  • HTML 5 Capabilities were not available — In the time since Apple’s experiment, browsers have started to expose things like offline support and geolocation that are essential for mobile.

There are good arguments to be made for why mobile web applications may not succeed. I may not agree with them, but I can acknowledge their logic. And for a whole host of immersive applications like games, I can readily acknowledge that mobile web applications will likely never make sense.

But to use Apple’s flirtation with mobile web applications as the foundation for an argument that mobile web applications will never take off is akin to looking at the success of web browsers on WAP phones and arguing that iPhone users will never use their browser.

Google Argues for Mobile Web

At the recent MobileBeat Conference, Google VP of Engineering Vic Gundotra told the audience that the Mobile Web will be the larger portion of mobile application development in the long run instead of native applications.

Mr. Gundotra argued the web was the only technology to provide the potential for cross platform development. He said not “that even Google was not rich enough to support all of the different mobile platforms from Appleā€™s AppStore to those of the BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Android and the many variations of the Nokia platform.”

His comments echo those that he made earlier at Google I/O. I recommend reading Tim O’Reilly’s summary of his presentation.

This is very similar to what I’ve been saying in my presentations at Web 2.0 Expo and Web Visions.

I’m not arguing that native applications will not continue to be important. I’m simply arguing that there will be far more mobile web sites and mobile web applications than native applications over the long term.