At least several hundred exhibitors are here this week in Barcelona at Mobile World Congress. Each of them seems to be launching either a new app store or a new operating platform. What these inescapable announcements fetch in buzz and inventiveness, they misjudge in audience tolerance. The impact goes beyond mere ennui, of which there is plenty, and touches at the heart of what makes a corporate mobile strategy nearly impossible to birth: There are too many choices.
Make no mistake: The platform wars will rage for years, and the corporate IT manager could suffer the casualties. Not only must IT choose a platform its user base will be happy with, and that it can adequately support and manage (securely), but it must also choose based on the company's overall mobile strategy. If it ignores the last part, it will miss a major opportunity to increase productivity by extending its applications to those mobile platforms -- an easy task when a single platform becomes the corporate standard.
The bigger challenge becomes extending the company's services (retail, supply chain, etc.) to customers via mobile applications; there's no telling what platforms those customers are using. Most figures project that there will be three times as many phones as there are PCs. That's an enormous opportunity to build a customer community.
Ironically, while it is well understood that Research In Motion's BlackBerry is the corporate smartphone of choice (in a recent survey, 61% of you said you've deployed them, compared to 27% iPhone and 24%t Windows Mobile), SAP, Workday, IBM, and other major software developers have chosen the iPhone as their first target mobile platform. RIM senior VP Jeff McDowell says he thinks this is partly because companies treat their first mobile application as a hobby more than as a business, but he also admits that Apple's development kit has been much easier for developers to build to.
Shazam, a company that makes an application that can identify songs off the radio or on TV or at a nightclub by creating a fingerprint out of soundwaves lasting 5 to 10 seconds, has built its product to run on every imaginable platform, and this approach has garnered them 50 million users so far, on pace to reach 100 million by the end of this year. The app comes pre-loaded on many phones now. Shazam CEO Andrew Fisher says one particular process -- the creation of runtime objects to provide screen transitions -- required a drag-and-drop of code using the iPhone SDK (and the same with Android); with Java (which is what runs the BlackBerry), the same process requires at least three man-months of coding.
RIM announced Blackberry Server Express this week; it offers a lighter, cheaper version of BES and is aimed at letting IT managers create multiple user classes, or for small or midsize businesses).
And yet applications for the iPhone, and now Android, are exploding. Symbian's S60, now also an open source platform, has been a popular application target for years. Windows Mobile (now at 6.5.3) still has a good hold in the enterprise but very few apps in its store. Palm's WebOS has had its momentary spotlight.
And there's Linux (LIMO and Maemo, and now Intel and Nokia's joint effort called MeeGo), but that's not enough. The LIMO consortium, which is attempting to come up with a standard, has its factions (the Azingo/Samsung version and the Access/NTT Docomo flavor). Samsung also has Bada. And as if it needed to repel developers more, Microsoft seems as if it will require yet a different environment altogether with Windows Phone 7 Series (a message Microsoft has yet to refute, and a topic on which many others in positions to know remain mum).
I haven't gotten to the app stores yet, but also this week a group of 27 mobile operators from around the globe announced themselves as the Wholesale Application Community, and set out to stick their collective finger in the eye of Apple's hegemony. This capricious effort, if it ever sees the light of day, will bless us with something in about a year or so, at which time dozens more will have emerged like virtual strip malls across tiny multitouch screens, at least one of which will surely come from a group that includes Bono, Oprah, and Simon Cowell.