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.