Five Years Too Late

January 12, 2010

More Platforms?

Filed under: Uncategorized — fiveyearstoolate @ 1:52 pm

Eric Wiesen

I’ll be telling no one anything by noting that mobile is hot right now, particularly native mobile apps. And I would be remiss not to also note that I’m no skeptic of this trend – we are recent investors in Hot Potato and a number of our companies are finding meaningful extensions of their functionality, audience and other capabilities by releasing native applications on the iPhone or other platforms.

But as I see increasing numbers of pitches for companies whose core business is mobile applications of various sorts, I am repeatedly seeing the same strategy for the next 9-12 months. When asked what the next year holds, I keep hearing “Well, by this time next year we’ll be on Android, Blackberry, and possibly Windows Mobile and Symbian”. This horizontal platform expansion seems almost assumed by those in the mobile space today.

I am often concerned when I hear this strategy if it’s the central method the company is relying on for user expansion. Why? Frankly, because user behavior around applications hasn’t yet been proven out on any platform other than the iPhone. There are 55 million iPhones/iPod Touches out there. Android is much much smaller. Blackberry, WinMo and Symbian have big footprints, but nowhere near the level of application engagement that we see on the iPhone.

What’s the upshot? It’s worth stepping back and analyzing what the objectives are: More users, more engagement, more data, more revenue. So the question that emerges out of these objectives is – is a mobile developer better off spending their resources and time on a better iPhone experience or developing Android and other clients? Generally speaking, I tend to be in the former camp today, and advise our companies as such. Billions of apps are purchased in the iTunes store – how many in these others? I tend to think one is better off trying to increase presence and quality of experience on this platform, where users are hyper-engaged (even given the more competitive app environment) rather than try to be present on platforms where there are few users actively engaged with apps. In a nutshell:

  • Android is going to be huge, but it isn’t today. There aren’t very many users and it’s changing quickly. Chances are whatever you build today will have to be rebuilt before very many people use it.
  • Blackberry is a meaningful platform, but the current app experience kind of sucks, and most of the Blackberry users I talk to don’t use or care particularly about native apps. This will probably change, but for the time being the bang you get for your development and marketing buck isn’t great.
  • Windows Mobile – about as worthy of your development time as it is of my commentary.
  • Symbian – Unless you’re focused outside the US, wait.

Startups have limited resources. If you are care about your mobile app, build a great app that can and will be used by the people who use apps all the time. Today, those people are iPhone users. Unless your app is deeply specific to another platform (like Viigo, for instance), you are better off trying to really succeed in the low-hanging fruit garden that is the iPhone. The flip side of the oft-cited truth that development is much easier and more faster today than it ever has been is that you can afford to wait to start projects until the market needs them. For our companies making tough choices about how to spend their time, I am usually of the opinion that until other app stores have momentum, focus should be in the environment where the users are.

7 Comments »

  1. I can see where you are coming from Eric, and just “being in the store” shouldn’t be an entire distribution strategy, but to play devil’s advocate, if you can get your app in one of the new (non itunes) stores early, you can stand out. We saw it on the iphone — early apps really benefited in terms of attention, adoption and price point simply by having less competition and less noise. You build up your store reputation and user levels early and get out ahead. But as you say, resources are limited, you can’t be everywhere and do everything, so every startup has to look at their target demographic and make a smart call.

    Comment by Giff — January 12, 2010 @ 3:14 pm

    • Giff – this is a fair point. I guess the counter is – getting out ahead of what, exactly? On the iPhone the app store proceeded a large amount of consumer engagement, and so the early app developers were able to take advantage of pent-up demand for quality apps (this also happened when Facebook opened up their platform). In most of these other cases, some or all of these pieces are missing. With Android it’s the users. With Blackberry it’s the lack of a compelling app experience and store. So while I agree that being a first mover is potentially important, I’d argue that unless the conditions are fertile for success, being first just won’t be that helpful and (to make my primary point again) probably isn’t the best use of most startups’ resources.

      Comment by Eric Wiesen — January 13, 2010 @ 10:20 am

  2. Clearly you want to do iphone first, but I think the issue with the Blackberry store creates opportunity (challenge). Is there someway to service this massive installed based with a solution that avoids the friction of a bad store. I think one of the opportunities is finding ways to service these users with email…photocheck.in for example is all email, should be much more appealing to Blackberry users than an app.

    Comment by jonsteinberg — January 12, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

    • Jon – the opportunity to do apps on the Blackberry is fascinating. In fact I had a conversation recently where I suggested that a great lifestyle business would be a BB app dev shop. But as of today the UX is so bad and the development experience sufficiently miserable that I don’t think most (not all) startups who are enjoying success with iPhone users are likely to have similar success with Blackberry users. I think there are a bunch of reasons for this, not the least of which is that they user bases are very different. I think there is a large category of companies for whom a BB app is arguably more important than an iPhone app. This post was largely designed to apply to companies who view these other platforms as footprint expansion following a successful iPhone app deployment. For companies targeting business users who view the Blackberry as core, this logic may not apply.

      Comment by Eric Wiesen — January 13, 2010 @ 10:23 am

  3. Giff and Jon have very good points.
    What about developing using PhoneGap or alike in order to be present on multiple handsets right away? as long as it is flexible enough to handle scalable updates.
    Although if a app publisher already has established a relationship with an iPhone user, it may be easier to focus on upselling, especially with the in-app purchasing feature to facilitate the process.
    Additionally most publishers do not realize it may take a lot more iterations than expected to serve users with a product they actually need and want. And given the time/resource constraints, that learning curve would indeed be more easily handled on one platform.

    Comment by Sandira — January 13, 2010 @ 4:19 am

    • Sandira – My issue with solutions like PhoneGap is that I don’t think these platforms are sufficiently homogeneous for that approach to result in apps that are actually any good. Because the environments and UIs for these platforms are sufficiently different, I think dedicated teams are needed to produce quality apps on each platform. My primary point is that devoting these resources to secondary platforms is probably not the highest-productivity use of startups’ scarce resources.

      Note that this will all be different if things go the way some (myself included) think they will over the next 5 years, and native apps decline in importance, giving way to a mobile web experience on all platforms. Once that happens this problem largely goes away, much in the way it has for desktop software that is now largely migrated to the web.

      Comment by Eric Wiesen — January 13, 2010 @ 10:25 am

  4. […] Weisen at Five Years Too Late has a nice summary of his perspective on mobile app investing.  I always thought that trying to get ahead of the adoption curve in a new space was the better […]

    Pingback by Application Rules « Mark Slater's Boston Blog — January 13, 2010 @ 5:46 pm


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