Apps, apps, apps

16. Apps, apps, apps

In a battle between technology platforms, how important are add-on applications in deciding the outcome of the battle?

A debate that recurred many times over the years at Symbian was whether we were doing enough to enable developers to write what might prove to be the all-important “killer app” for smartphones. If we just met the requirements that phone manufacturers stated, we might end up with a platform that failed to attract and hold the attention of developers, and that might, in turn, lead to a reduction in the value of the platform. This would come about (we feared) because key new applications would only be available on devices from competing smartphone platforms.

There were two different versions of the argument that apps were important:

  1. It might turn out that future smartphones would be propelled forwards by one particular new “killer app” – an app that would, by itself, make a big difference to the attractiveness of smartphones
  2. It might turn out, instead, that future users of smartphones would be interested in a wide variety of new applications; in this case, a smartphone platform could gain a decisive advantage by making a better job of providing this wide variety of apps.

In both scenarios, it would be important to look after the requirements of at least some developers – the developers who would write the apps that would appeal to future purchasers of smartphones.

However, Symbian ended up with a system for third party developers that these developers widely disliked – a “Symbian Signed” programme that required developers to jump through hoops in order to gain the certification required for applications to run on Symbian devices. Worse, there was little sign of any clear path for developers to earn significant revenues from their Symbian apps. Another complication was the difficult learning curve posed by Symbian’s non-standard and idiosyncratic APIs (Application Programming Interface). Adding everything up, the result was, by 2009, that application developers preferred to focus on non-Symbian platforms, such as iPhone and Android.

How did this situation come to pass? This chapter looks into the changing relation between Symbian and application developers. The chapter also considers the consequences of putting so many obstacles in the way of application developers.

Examples of killer apps

The term “killer app” refers to an application which drives significant numbers of users to buy particular kinds of devices – devices on which that application is available. An app can be described as a killer app if enough people say about it, “I need this software and something that runs it”.

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