The battle in the smart devices space may or may not end up as a two-horse race between Apple and Android in the years to come but 2013 is certainly going to be an interesting year for the app economy, that has so far played a leading part in dictating the primacy of one ecosystem over the other.
It’s an economy built on the seemingly insatiable consumer appetite, which has propelled the business of building bite-sized software for smartphones to stratospheric heights in a blink of an eye. Apple’s vaunted App Store may have started its journey in 2008 with just 500 apps in tow, but now boasts over 700,000 apps and is an intrinsic part of the overall Apple ecosystem. Google’s answer to the App Store - Android Market - took a little longer to gain traction but is now giving Apple a run for its money.
The Apple-Android duel is almost certain to intensify in the New Year, underpinned by the rapid adoption curve that has made smartphones and indispensable tool for consumers. There is also the prospect of Microsoft further flexing its muscles to give the Windows app store a refresh. With over 20,000 apps already available and Windows 8 still finding its feet, there is ample room for growth here for Microsoft. Add to this Research In Motion’s resolve to give BlackBerry 10 a full app arsenal and Facebook’s App Centre ambitions and the competitive stakes are going to be high in 2013.
Apps get serious
While apps are a consumer-centric construct there is growing evidence that they are starting to figure more prominently in the enterprise space. This interest isn’t just consigned to helping businesses connect with customers but also aimed at devising mobile solutions for business processes and operations. What this means is fertile ground for developers, big and small, to work in conjunction with willing organisations.
One high-end developer Outware Mobile has certainly made the most of this trend in 2012 and its founder Danny Gorog expects more of the same in 2013.
"It’s been an unbelievable year for us, our turnover has quadrupled, there is huge growth and businesses are finally ready to make a strong play in the space,” Gorog says.
"You look at Seek’s iPhone app, that’s a significant part of its business. You look at AFL’s app, they have over a million people using the app. So in 2012 businesses have not only recognised that mobile is important they have also become serious about doing something about it.”
What Gorog illustrates is that the convergence of mobile adoption and consumerisation of IT has reached sufficient mass to help businesses recognise the benefits of investing in a quality app.
This process should further accelerate in the New Year as companies that have invested in apps seek to add further sophistication to their platforms.
2013 could be Android's year
From an ecosystem point of view, Gorog reckons that 2013 could well be the year of the Android as demand for a native Android experience picks up steam.
"You are going to see a lot of quality Android apps and plenty of demand. You will find that a lot of companies that have done well out of their iOS apps will try to leverage their mobile experience in the Android space,” Gorog says.
He is a little less enthusiastic about Microsoft, but it is still early days for Windows 8. According to Gorog, the Surface is an interesting first-generation product and Microsoft has taken a big gamble with Windows Phone 8.
"Windows RT is pretty limited, it’s good if you like Office but otherwise it’s not that useful. I think Microsoft has taken a misstep with Windows Phone 8 given that Windows Phone 7 users won’t be able to upgrade to 8 and the truth is we are not seeing any demand right now for any Windows development,” Gorog says.
That’s not to say Microsoft can’t turn things around, if anything Google’s Android experience should give it plenty of hope. While there is understandable apprehension about Microsoft’s new direction it’s far too premature to write it off just yet. In fact, 2013 could be a watershed of sorts, especially with regards to how quickly Microsoft can bring developers on board. Windows 8’s strong install base means it will still be a very viable platform.
As for RIM, Gorog reckons that the optimism around BlackBerry 10 might be a tad misplaced and the BlackBerry maker’s decision to switch from a Java to a C platform and the continued erosion of BlackBerry’s significance in the enterprise space doesn’t bode well for the company.
Native apps and winning the lottery
Platforms aside, some of the basic tenets of the app economy will continue to hold sway for developers in 2013. The explosion in demand has translated to an explosion of developers and while skilled app developers will always command a high price for most them of instant success will remain just that.
The truth is that as the competition in the space intensifies potential success will depend on through due diligence.
"You need to do your research to understand the market and the technology and given the level of competition you need to have the support of a big partner and big marketing budget,” Gorog says.
"The chances of doing well in the App Store is like winning Tattslotto.”
So some economic fundamentals are going to remain unscathed for the time being but 2013 looks set to be the year when apps get serious. Customer interface is going to get a lot better, testing and integration is going to get a lot more sophisticated and for now native apps will continue to rule the roost.
That’s not to say that HTML 5 development is going to become moribund but it’s still behind the curve. At some of point we might actually reach a market equilibrium between HTML 5 and native development, especially as the rate of new app development eases and the demand for mobile websites with high functionality tick up. But as smartphones get smarter and data networks get stronger native apps are going to be key purveyors of customer experience for some time to come.