In the latest PC Magazine, Michael Miller writes about the cool new things happening on mobile phones and opines that “consumers should be able to pick applications regardless of phone or carrier.” This is a wonderful idea, but is idealistic to such a degree as to be laughable.
This fact doesn’t escape Miller’s attention. He adds: “There are multiple impediments: a bunch of different platforms that developers write for, a bunch of different phone makers, and four big national wireless carriers that want to control the applications on your phone.”
But the scope of these impediments is wider than one might imagine. To illustrate, I looked at the only the phones offered by Nokia, and only those Nokia phones available in North America, then specifically only those offered in the United States.
Nokia phones come with one of three different operating systems. Each of these operating systems has had more than one edition. Some editions break compatibility with prior editions. That is, programs written for edition 2 may not run on edition 3. Between the three current major operating systems supported by Nokia (Series 40, 60, and 80) there are eight editions. Software written for one Series does not run on the other Series’. In some cases the programming languages supported on one Series are not supported on the other Series’.
Within a Series there are variations on the services available to programmers, and as I mentioned before, between editions there can be major changes that make it so programs written for one edition will not run on the next. This is equivalent to Microsoft making it so that no program written for Windows 98 would run on Windows XP. There are already enough apps that break for some reason even though Microsoft tries to maintain compatibility between versions. Imagine if they intentionally broke all apps when they released a new version. This is unimaginable on the desktop, yet it happens all the time on mobile phones.
Continuing with the Nokia illustration, Nokia offers 123 models of phone in the United States. They have a huge market share and hundreds of millions of customers. However, only about 1/4th of those phones are programmable. The vast majority offer limited capability for third-party additions beyond ringtones.
Of the 30 or so phones that are possible targets for programmers, half are running an older version of the Series 60 operating system that is incompatible with programs written for the latest version. And of the 15 models that are thus targetable for software developers, only one or two have been picked up by any carriers here in the US. As a result, even though hundreds of millions of people are carrying Nokia phones, only thousands are carrying phones that are potential targets for current developers.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’m picking on Nokia. I’m just using them as an illustration. The rest of the industry is similar: There are thousands of models of phones each running some highly customized version of some proprietary operating system, making it impossible for the sharing of programs or even data beyond a very limited subset of particular models of phones.
So the dream of running any cell phone software on any cell phone is a long way off — unless Microsoft or Palm comes to dominate the cell phone market and establishes their OS as the standard. And furthermore, the dream of seeing a big uptick in a broad range of software applications for these devices is severely hampered by the inability of the cell phone manufacturers to adopt a standard operating system (or even two or three). Without that, it’s difficult for developers to commit resources to the mobile phone market.
This should not be interpreted as a position statement from Laridian with respect to the direction of its development. We were developing for Windows CE long before it had a measurable fraction of market share, and it could be argued that the BlackBerry is an inhospitable platform for Bible software because so many of them are controlled by corporate IT departments which restrict the installation of third-party apps on the devices. This is merely a commentary on the sad state of the mobile phone market from the perspective of independant software developers.