Does app platform really matter?

Apple iOS, Android, Blackberry, Windows Phone 7, and Nokia Symbian. Develop an app for all those platforms and you've pretty much covered the world of phone apps. But is it really necessary to have an app on every platform? Isn't the iPhone the hottest most popular phone in the world?

To be successful, a phone app must reach its audience and platform choice is one of the factors to make that happen. Carrier/retailer, demographics, market segmentation, cost, marketing, support, localization, and other factors count too, but the choice of platform a.k.a. OS (operating system) is fundamental and top of mind for many people.

Mobile apps are different from a web site because web sites (done properly) are universal regardless of the computer OS or browser accessing them. With the Internet, you may have different strategies and different landing pages to attract different market segments, but the mechanics of delivering a page are the same. Mobile apps are platform specific. Currently and for the foreseeable future, there is no translator that properly converts one app (language) to another. So unlike the Internet, an app (essentially) has to be developed from scratch for each mobile platform. If you want to be on three platforms - you've got three app projects.

The choice of what platform to develop for is largely a matter of knowing your target audience and your goals. For example, there are less novelty apps on Blackberry than on iOS and Android because Blackberry still has more of a business oriented user demographic. Of course, there are always shades of gray. If your market is in or includes Europe, Nokia's market penetration makes Symbian an absolute consideration. If you're concerned with the freedom to determine and include features and content of your choosing without risk of being rejected from an app store, Apple is out and Android is the way to go. If there's a "must have" capability and the logical OS choice(s) don't offer it, you may need to make a strategic decision: platform vs. feature.

From a development perspective, iOS offers some simplicity because of limited screen size choices (2), whereas other platforms that support a multitude of phones and screen choices, add a little more complexity to project development, especially when new phones come out after your app is in distribution. Major features are largely universal, but the most popular US platforms, iPhone and Android, have the largest feature set and are nearly identical. Android is practically unrestricted when it comes to coding techniques, but Apple is very strict on code and coding methodologies and tests every submitted app's source code to see if it meets their guidelines. If not, it's not allowed in the iTunes store, or if admitted, it can be rejected at any future time.

So yes, platform matters - but in context. Often the app's content, features, and objectives skew the decision, but it doesn't have to be that way. For example: an app that integrates Gmail, Google Docs, Picasa, and Google maps, seems obvious for the Android OS, yet, a completely universal app like a wine guide is largely platform agnostic. Maybe though, a lot of iPhone users prefer Gmail and Picasa to Apple applications and the Symbian platform is so devoid of a good wine app that it's worth focusing resources just there.

Ultimately, it's not a technology decision, but a business decision, influenced by the same factors that affect all business strategies and product introductions. In the same context as "form follows function", selection of a mobile OS follows people - the people that will embrace and make your application a success.

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