This continues an exploration of the technologies and trends that are influencing the future of reading. Previous posts have discussed the GMS mobile telephony standard and how the iPhone has changed the expectations smartphones and other screen based consumer electronic devices. As always, crossposted at the OPL)

[App Store]As mentioned previously, one of the things that smartphones did was to highlight the value of the Operating System. Beyond the user interface of the phone, the key place that the OS created value was through app delivered via App Stores. There is no question that the undisputed leader here is Apple. Gartner Research recently reported that Apple accounts for 97.5% of all applications downloaded from all app stores.

Let’s spend a moment with that number. First note that it includes the download of paid and free applications. The research group Gigaom has calculated that approximately ¾’s of the applications downloaded from the store are free applications (please, visit that link for a beautiful visualization of this information). Still, the results of people paying for a quarter of those applications is nothing to dismiss. In December of 2009, the quarter of the downloads from the App store that were paid for accounted for $250 Million in revenues of which 30% goes to Apple and 70% goes to the developers.

Also, it’s important to note that not all of those downloads took place on iPhones. Many purchases were made via the iPod Touch, which also runs the iPhone software. This tends to lend some credence to the possibility that the upcoming Apple tablet will run iPhone software, or at least have access to the Apple App store. It’s in Apple’s best interest to make sure that as many devices of their devices as possible can buy from the store.

Given the relative “newness” of the Blackberry/RIM, Android/Google, and Microsoft App stores, it shouldn’t surprise us that Apple is so far ahead. We can expect that as those stores mature, and as the number of devices that can access these stores increase, Apple’s share of the download market will decrease.

The greater point in all of this is that users see smartphones as a platform for apps and that they are willing to routinely download and even pay for apps, if the installation process is “one click” easy. Those apps in turn, are expanding people’s expectations about what a smartphone can do. And as we have seen expectations are often carried over to similar product categories – especially if the products are in similar price ranges. Just as people have come to expect that eReaders have touchscreens, similar expectations may develop around downloading and running apps. Take for example the Amazon’s announcement of a Kindle Software Development Kit. Also note that such a move isn’t just about keeping up with the ApplesJones, it’s also the hope of developing their own app store (you know, it’s not like Amazon has experience handling eCommerce).

The Smartphone Mobile OS

As people expect more and more from their phone, the line between the smartphone category and the portable computer category will begin to blur. Based on products shown or rumored at CES, it’s clear that said blurring has already begun. Smartphone OS’s have begun to “invade” other devices. Google’s Android OS has made its way onto netbooks and eReaders. And while Microsoft currently has different operating systems for mobile phones (Windows Phone) and other mobile devices (Windows CE), there is much speculation that these will eventually fold into the same platform. Finally,as mentioned above, in addition to driving the iPod Touch, there is much speculation that the upcoming Apple iSlate will also run the iPhone OS.

Beyond including access to apps, there are a number of reasons why Mobile OS’s are on the rise:

  • They are (in theory) designed to run efficiently on lower powered processors. While the capabilities of mobile CPUs continue to increase, they still lag far behind their traditional computer brethren. So mobile OS’s have to do more with less and while balancing functionality with heat discharge and power consumption (you don’t want to have to recharge your device more than once a day).
  • Touch (either finger or stylus) is the primary interface device. Unlike traditional OSes which focus on mouse and keyboard, these platforms were designed from the ground up to be touch first and keyboard second.
  • Telephony and mobile networking is built into the OS. Since they are designed to work as (smart)phones they have to be able to connect to a mobile phone network. This means that when a manufacturer chooses to implement a given mobile OS they know that they have the software capability for mobile networking.
  • And in addition to telephony, there are a number of other “bonus” features enabled by the OS including support for built in cameras, accelerometers (motion sensors), magnetometer (digital compass), and GPS.

Where manufacturer/developer choice comes in

For manufacturers, choosing one of these OS’s means that you don’t have to program your own custom OS for your device. However there are a range of decisions and, in some cases, restrictions that influence the decision of which OS to use.

Of the major OS’s:  Apple Iphone, Google Android, Microsoft Phone, RIM Blackberry, and Nokia/Sony Ericsson/Samsung Symbian – only Android and Windows Phone are licensed so that any manufacturer can incorporate them into their devices.

Apple, Nokia, RIM, Sony Ericsson, and Samsung tightly control their respective OS’s, placing them on devices that they manufacture. The advantage to this, from a manufacturer’s standpoint, is that they can tightly control the hardware that the platforms run on. The argument for this control is that it provides users with the best possible base experience: You never have to worry about encountering iPhone software on a device with a slow processor.

Microsoft and Google take a different approach. By allowing anyone (or at least anyone who is willing to pay the development licensing fee in Microsoft’s case) to develop hardware for their platforms, the hope is to capture the market through volume. The recent proliferation of Android devices is a great example of this. It’s hard to say “no” to a free OS that provides all the advantages listed above.

On one hand, this flexibility means that these OS, in Microsoft’s case Windows CE, find their way into a wide range of devices including eReaders and tablets. However, there are potential dangers to this strategy. Microsoft attributes part of the problems that they have had with their Mobile OS to inconsistent user experiences due to variation screen sizes and processor power across devices:

Our fragmentation issue is primarily around screen resolutions and assuming a minimum CPU and storage. So it has been a little bit challenging, because that choice, that flexibility, that freedom that people have to build any kind of device and use any kind of device: touch, non-touch, keyboard, soft key, has required a little bit extra effort in some cases for developers to target apps that run across a wide array of devices…” ~ Microsoft’s Greg Sullivan, Senior Marketing Manager

For app developers, there are different costs to be weighed. If developers choose to program for Android, it means learning a new OS. Microsoft, on the other hand, markets their OS by highlighting the advantage that programming for the OS is very similar to writing a standard Windows program, which helps keep costs down. Apple makes a similar claim about the Cocoa programming language for the iPhone – if you can program a Mac, you can program an iPhone.

Obviously market share and platform popularity influence choice as well. But, returning to the beginning of the article, distribution through App stores may be the biggest factor. By signing on with Apple, for example, a developer knows that if they can get their application into the iTunes App store, then they have the greatest audience exposure and a “turn key” infrastructure for getting paid.

The question that we’ll tackle next is how Smartphone Apps are changing our expectations about what programs (and computers) can do.