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The Mobile Road: Looking Back, Looking Forward : Page 5

By looking at the past trajectory of mobile devices in the marketplace, we can better understand where mobile computing is headed.

Symbian is a pre-emptive, memory-protected operating system released by the company of the same name and used to power many Nokia and Sony Ericsson phones. Symbian began its life as EPOC Release 5, the last software release of EPOC by Psion with a joint venture company of the same name. Virtually untapped here in the United States for application development, Symbian is a very powerful platform programmable in C++ using Symbian’s frameworks for applications and services. In addition, the Symbian platform itself runs Java ME, so that Symbian phones typically can run both native Symbian applications as well as J2ME applications.

Software development for Symbian has received a relatively lackluster welcome here in the United States, but does quite well abroad. There is a thriving base of mobile software, most written in Europe, and increasingly leveraging the Symbian Signed program that involves third-party vetting and signing of an application prior to delivery to enable certain features such as multimedia access. It’s difficult to pin exactly why Symbian has been slow to take off in the United States, except to look at device cost—until recently, most Symbian devices were smart phones—and many still are. This means higher prices than traditional consumer phones. Combine this with a lack of explicit Symbian marketing in the US (to both carriers and consumers), and its adoption has been slow to take off.

Apple’s iPhone
The Apple iPhone was—until recently—a closed platform, permitting mobile applications only through its robust WebKit-based Web Browser, Safari. In March 2008 with the usual Apple fanfare, Apple released a beta of their long-awaited SDK for iPhone.

The iPhone looks to be a promising new entrant while Palm and Windows Mobile have a strong enterprise flavor.
As the iPhone runs a lightweight version of Mac OS X, the SDK unsurprisingly leverages many of the same APIs and programming environments used by Mac OS X.

Like other modern mobile platforms, the iPhone officially runs only signed code—although unlike BREW, it’s been hacked to support third-party applications through a non-Apple-supported application manager. The benefit of code signing still remains, in that applications signed by the developer and distributed by Apple tie into the iTunes store and billing, permitting easy payment to registered iPhone developers.

What Makes or Breaks a Platform?
Today’s commercially successful platforms include Palm, BlackBerry, Java ME, Windows Mobile, Qualcomm Brew, Symbian, and potentially the iPhone (only time will tell). Of these, the major platforms are really Windows Mobile, Palm, Qualcomm Brew, and Java ME; BlackBerry applications are simply Java ME applications with the potential to access a few extra classes, and here in the United States, at least, most Symbian users run Java ME applications rather than native Symbian applications.

Why have these platforms won out while others fail? Common points leading to their success include:

  • Price consciousness. These platforms clearly recognize the need for low-cost hardware, and are heavily optimized to run on hardware that’s inexpensive to manufacture. Mobile casualties including the Apple Newton platform and Magic Cap were typically more expensive to consumers and enterprise users.
  • Convergence. These platforms have generally weathered convergence between devices (PDAs and phones) and networks (the Internet and telephony networks) well.
  • Data management. The key to any PDA’s success was its ability to act as a PC companion, synchronizing data between the desktop and mobile. Palm pioneered this, and nearly every mobile platform since then has included some kind of desktop companion software or capability (notable exceptions are Java ME and Qualcomm Brew, although even on these platforms there are devices that include some sort of data import or synchronization, such as the BlackBerry and some Qualcomm Brew handsets).
  • Application signing and trusted distribution. Newer platforms include the ability to cryptographically sign applications, with platforms only providing access to some APIs for signed applications. This enables a higher degree of application trust and secure application delivery, solving the application distribution problem that has simplified mobile application distribution and billing.
Interestingly, one criteria that does not guarantee success is openness: with the exception of the iPhone, all of these platforms were at some time “open” in the sense of being made available to licensees, and all have had open development environments. Of course, the degree to which platforms have been licensed grossly differs—as does the success of the platform licensees.

If you’re setting out to be a mobile developer, which should you choose? The answer isn’t which one, but which ones. The move towards signed applications and trusted distribution channels makes application distribution and reimbursement easier, although of course it brings additional challenges (application certification, marketing to the distribution partner, and so forth), and restricts the market to a few channels as opposed to a truly open delivery. Nonetheless, Java ME and Qualcomm Brew should be high on your list for mobile penetration, and whether you target the more smartphone-oriented platforms (Symbian, Palm, Windows Mobile, and iPhone) depends on the market sector you’re entering. Palm and Windows Mobile have a strong enterprise flavor, and the iPhone looks to be a promising new entrant in that area as well with Apple’s licensing of Microsoft ActiveSync. iPhone, of course, has been a commercial success as well, quickly outpacing older smartphones in sales in the consumer market.

Regardless of the decision you make, the mobile market is booming, with plenty of opportunities for new applications.

Ray Rischpater is the chief architect at Rocket Mobile, Inc., specializing in the design and development of messaging and information access applications for today's wireless devices. Ray is the author of several books on software development including "eBay Application Development" and "Software Development for the QUALCOMM BREW Platform," both available from Apress, and is an active amateur radio operator.
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