Vendors ‘Store Up’ for Selling Mobile Apps

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Microsoft, Nokia and others are following Apple’s lead in launching application stores for their mobile platforms. Suddenly, solution providers and app developers have a whole new channel to present their wares.

When it comes to mobility, Apple’s presence—particularly through the iPhone—cannot be denied.

While it may not have invented mobile applications, Apple made them mainstream. The iPhone revolutionised personalising the mobile device, incorporating a population of wildly fanatical Apple fans to build downloadable applications that are useful, whimsical, valuable and, in more than a few cases, just downright silly. (Really, who needs an application that makes the sound of a chainsaw when the iPhone is tilted toward the floor?)

Although the iPhone is primarily a consumer device, it has made an undeniable impact on the mobile business space – it has shone the spotlight on just how easy it is (or should be) to download mobile applications to a personal device.

As a result, all users – consumer and business – now want that same level of simplicity with every device, as well as a wide range of applications.

Mobile device makers are heeding the call. During the GSMA World Mobile Congress in Barcelona last month, Nokia and Microsoft both announced their intentions to open an online applications marketplace available directly on their devices. Service carriers such as Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile all have versions of online app stores, but the trend is now turning toward manufacturers offering downloadable apps.

The advent of mobile app stores is giving solution providers and application developers new opportunities in the previously locked down cell phone arena. In the Channel Insider 2009 Market Pulse Report, smart phones rank as the technology with the highest demand among end users. Many solution providers are finding fertile ground in installing and supporting smart phone systems. And many custom application developers are building new revenue streams by creating mobile apps specifically for smart phones.

Michele Pelino, senior analyst at Forrester Research, noted that the actions of the mobile hardware and software vendors reflect natural technology progression.

“They realise there isn’t a seamless way for apps to go across all vendors,” she said. “Because of the fragmentation of the market, there is no easy way to write one application that will work on every devices, and they recognise their devices are only as valuable as the applications you can use with it.”

Hence the proliferation of mobile app stores.

“Vendors recognise they have to have the devices out there, they have to have the applications created by third-party vendors, and they have to have these applications all in one place – that is the real benefit of having these sites,” she said.

Indeed, comments made by vendor executives during the GSMA World Congress echo that sentiment.

“This is not just a place to find applications. It’s a smart store, that is not just for smartphones,” said Nokia’s Niklas Savander of the Ovi store. “It actually suggests things you might like and adds social location dynamics to show you relevant applications. And it shows you what your friends have bought. And it changes the inventory based on where you are.”

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was equally enthusiastic. “We are going to give developers new tools to continue to build increasingly better applications; with the [Windows Mobile] Marketplace, they will also have the freedom and the convenience to distribute them and have customers find them easily,” he said during his keynote address.

The devices, also, are becoming more download-friendly, taking their cues from Apple and incorporating full touch screens, user-friendly GUIs and app store software right on the devices.

“The design ties into the applications, absolutely,” she said. “Ultimately it’s the users who are going to download applications and so they recognise that you have to make it as easy as possible.”

Enterprise applications vendors, too, are taking note. As mobile devices truly become ubiquitous communications tools, the call is getting louder for apps that provide the level of information employees need to get their job done wherever they are. Many of the larger vendors – SAP, Pivotal and others – have already gotten into the game with device-specific apps based on their enterprise applications, and other vendors have created some useful apps that feature a bit of gee-whiz with their functionality.

But despite the movement, business users will have to cool their heels a bit longer before they see a groundswell of true enterprise-level apps, Pelino said.

“Right now the focus is on the consumer-oriented environment, developers will move into SMB with a focus on companies that don’t have the resources to do in-house development. And then finally they’ll move into the enterprise at a generic level,” she said. “Many times corporations have resources in house or they have a relationship with developers, so they don’t have a need like the SMB space does.

“The bigger question for the device folks might be, How do I get developers to pay attention to me? And the developers might ask, Now that I have all these choices, where do I focus my efforts?” she said.