Application-distribution platforms for smartphones and other devices

At the moment, there are an increasing number of PDAs, smartphones and mobile Internet devices that can be given extra functionality by the user after they buy the device. This is typically achieved through the user loading on to their device applications that are developed by a large community of programmers. This practice will end up being extended to other consumer-electronics devices like printers, TVs, set-top boxes, and electronic picture frames as manufacturers use standard embedded-device platforms like Android, Symbian or Windows CE and common “embedded-application” processors for these devices. It will be extended further to “durable” products like cars, business appliances and building control and security equipment as these devices end up on these common platforms and manufacturers see this as a way of adding value “in the field” for this class of device.

From this, I have been observing the smartphone marketplace and am noticing a disturbing trend where platform vendors are setting up their own application-distribution platforms that usually manifest as “app stores” that run on either the PC-device synchronisation program or on the device’s own user-interface screen. These platforms typically require the software to be pre-approved by the platform vendor before it is made available and, in some cases like the Apple iPhone, you cannot obtain the software from any other source like the developer’s Web site, competing app store or physical medium. You may not even be able to search for applications using a Web page on your regular computer, rather you have to use a special application like iTunes or use the phone’s user-interface.

People who used phones based on the Windows Mobile or Symbian S60 / UIQ platform were able to install applications from either the developer’s Website or a third-party app store like Handango. They may have received the applications on a CD-ROM or similar media as the mobile extension for the software they are buying or as simply a mobile-software collection disc. Then they could download the installation package from these sites and upload it to their phone using the platform’s synchronisation application. In some cases, they could obtain the application through the carrier’s mobile portal and, perhaps, have the cost of the application (if applicable) charged against their mobile phone account. They can even visit the application Website from the phone’s user interface and download the application over the 3G or WiFi connection, installing it straight away on the phone.

The main issue that I have with application-distribution platforms controlled by the device platform vendor is that if you don’t have a competing software outlet, including the developer’s Web site, a hostile monopolistic situation can exist. As I have observed with the iPhone, there are situations where the platform vendor can arbitrarily deny approval for software applications or can make harsh conditions for the development and sale of these applications. In some cases, this could lead to limitations concerning application types like VoIP applications being denied access to the platform because they threaten the carrier partner’s revenue stream for example. In other cases, the developer may effectively receive “pennies” for the application rather than “pounds”.

What needs to happen with application-distribution platforms for smartphones and similar devices is to provide a competitive environment. This should be in the form of developers being able to host and sell their software from their Website rather than provide a link to the platform app store. As well, the platform should allow one or more competing app stores to exist on the scene. It also includes the carriers or service providers being able to run their own app stores, using their ability to extend their business relationships with their customers like charging for software against their customers’ operating accounts. For “on-phone” access, it can be facilitated in the form of uploadable “manifest files” that point to the app store’s catalogue Website.

As well, the only tests that an application should have to face are for device security, operational stability and user-privacy protection. The same tests should also include acceptance of industry-standard interfaces, file types and protocols rather than vendor-proprietary standards. If an application is about mature-age content, the purchasing regime should include industry-accepted age tests like purchase through credit card only for example.

Once this is achieved for application-distribution platforms, then you can achieve a “win-win” situation for extending smartphones, MIDs and similar devices

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