What about other phones? Should I also develop apps for Nokia etc?

With all the hype surrounding the iPhone its easy to forget that Apple’s phone is just 1% of all handsets and only 17% of all smartphones, as of April 09.

That makes for an interesting question. If mobile digital content is so wildly popular that it only takes nine months to gross between $0.5b to $1b on just 1% of the world’s handsets – you might like to read that again, slowly –  doesn’t that make mobile content add up to an addressable market of $50-$100b per year? Shouldn’t book publishers rush to make apps for every phone they can think of? I don’t believe so. Despite the stats, I believe that book publishers should stick to the iPhone for now, unless they’re in the mood to gamble. I can see at least four reasons why the Iphone makes sense:

1) It is very hard to develop a single app that works on a wide range of ordinary phones. Handsets differ in screen size, processor power, battery life, operating system, user-controls, connection speed and software reliability, to mention just seven factors out of many. Take those seven factors and multiply them across the several thousand different models of handset in use and you’ll present yourself with a fearsome technical challenge. Of course, over time you can expect handsets will converge and technical fragmentation will decline   – after all, the iPhone’s success has given Nokia and Blackberry an incentive to make their products simpler to use – but don’t hold your breath. The handset industry has predicted platform convergence for years but in reality it appears they often seem keen to fight endless format wars instead. Perhaps its because they all hope to be the last man standing.

(There are some promising firms like Metismo offering a software platform that can cross-develop for a range of phones at once, a pretty amazing achievement. I’m not in a position to comment on such services, but cross-platform development is obviously of great significance to the media industry, if not now then certainly in the future).

2) Many developers only have eyes for the iPhone. A few years ago, a lot of mobile phone developers quit the industry having grown disillusioned by device fragmentation. There were just too many handsets to make development worthwhile.  Some of those who quit have been lured back in by the promise of the iPhone. Few have been lured back in by the chance to work on other platforms, because they’re still very fragmented.  Actually, I exaggerate – there are a few cutting-edge developers keen to try other platforms, especially Google’s Android, but if you were a cutting-edge mobile phone developer would you work for the kind of money paid by book publishers?

3) Most mobile users couldn’t name their model of phone. Hard to believe? Ask MORI. The story behind that story is that users want their mobile content to be easy to buy. They don’t want to be forced to find out whether they own the Acme X5A or X5B before they can download whatever their kid is pestering them for. Most attempts to get round device fragmentation – like having pull-down menus so that the users can select their model of phone – simply dump on the consumer a problem that should be tackled at source. Apple tackled it at source. You buy an iPhone and you can buy apps, simple as that. As a former publisher of the “…For Dummies” brand, I can attest that simplicity is very powerful.

4)  Thanks to iTunes, Apple already has lots of credit cards on file. Book publishing lags behind other media when it comes to capturing customer data. Some book publishers make reasonable attempts to capture emails and credit card details, but many don’t. Magazine publishers are maniacal about credit cards and customer email – and iTunes couldn’t even exist without cards and email.

Until book publishers can get over their subtle reluctance to sell direct, digital content must be retailed through partnerships with firms like Amazon and Apple, both of whom have ongoing relationships with credit-card wielding customers.  Thanks to the all-conquering iPod, iTunes is second only to Amazon in terms of customer familiarity and card numbers on file: it’s pretty easy to give Apple your money, easier than giving it to Nokia anyway. If you’re a handset manufacturer your customers are Vodafone and Carphone Warehouse, not the general reading public, and that’s likely to be reflected in the quality of the forthcoming app stores currently in development by Nokia et al. The new app stores will get better over time, sure, but right now Apple has several years headstart in the business of selling digital content straight to a handset. For book publishers, Apple’s headstart is there to be used.

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I did start off this post by saying that iPhone is the way to go unless you fancy a gamble. What might that gamble be? Well, I believe there are at least 3 reasons why a book publisher might want to co-develop for other platforms – just don’t say you weren’t warned!

1) Firsties. The first few apps on the app store made a ton of money partly because there was nothing else to buy. You might just benefit from being among the first in the newer app stores from Nokia or Blackberry, though don’t forget your audience is likely to be smaller thanks to the dreaded handset fragmentation.

2) Apple’s position is not invulnerable. This view was expressed in a recent presentation given by venture capitalist Nic Brisbourne at one of my iPhone events for book publishers. Nic risked having rotten tomatoes thrown at him by the assembled Apple fans for daring to suggest that Apple’s strategy is flawed. Nic believes that the Apple platform suffers from being a closed system rather than an open system such as Google Android. If you’re not sure of the difference between open and closed technology systems, think of it this way: Wikipedia is likely to outlive the Evening Standard precisely because Wikipedia benefits from the efforts of whoever wants to contribute. Both Apple and the Evening Standard are closed shops to contributors, even contributors with potentially better ideas.  History suggests that open systems usually beat closed systems in the long run.   Nic’s probably right about Apple, though he also said that app developers are perfectly justified in making hay while the sun shines…!

3) The glittering prize. The world is home to 4.1 billion “live” mobile phone accounts. There is a payment system behind each one. Most of them will eventually want some form of third-party content on their phone, even if they don’t know it now. You might not regret getting in at the ground floor of the mobile industry’s attempt to beat Apple.

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