In mobile, do developers or consumers matter most?

Apple took the lead in mobile by appealing to consumers, but Google could surpass the iPhone if it can marry a strong developer story with consumer sex appeal.

The mobile-computing world is increasingly a two-horse race between Google and Apple, with Apple clearly in the lead but Google Android making up ground quickly. Microsoft and Symbian are also still in the game, but the ultimate winner will be the one that best appeals to consumers or developers.

Or both.

Sexy? Yes. But what about the developers?

This struck home while reading Mark Sigal's analysis of the "inevitability" of Google Android. On his way to dismantling the idea that Google's victory is assured, Sigal stumbles into apparently divergent interest groups:

[U]nlike the PC, where "good enough" was the bar required to seize the market,...for most consumers, their mobile device of choice is a lifestyle decision, a personal, ever-present extension of themselves that is resident in a way that never existed before with the PC--a value proposition that Apple has completely run with on iPhone (and iPod before that).

Fundamentally, though, mobile is a platform play, a game that is largely won by securing the hearts and minds of developers, and for them, the expectation bar is now set pretty high, owing to the success of iPhone across so many domains....

If you're Google (or Microsoft or Symbian), then, who do you target? Developers or consumers?

It's a real question, as while both parties' interests ultimately converge (consumers want developers to make great applications so that those same consumers can pay the developers lots of money), the short-term interests of consumers (sexy product) and developers (ease and richness of development platform) don't necessarily go together.

Motorola RAZR? Sexy product, lame development platform. Windows Mobile? Arguably a solid development platform...with almost zero sex appeal for consumers.

This is why John Carroll is probably right to argue that Microsoft should reinvigorate its mobile strategy with an emphasis on .Net as a powerful way for developers to write powerful mobile applications, it's not going to be enough. Microsoft can port all the business applications it wants for Windows Mobile. It won't matter.

Consumers don't buy business applications. Not until after they've chosen a phone that meets their personal needs, first.

Yes, enterprises do try to dictate corporate standards with Blackberrys and dull Dell PCs heading the list. But in the fast-changing mobile market, you can't hope that consumers will be forced to use your software. You want them to want to do so.

This is why I believe Google has a good chance of taking a serious bite out of Apple, and Symbian and Microsoft do not. Symbian is too difficult an application development platform, as Gartner notes, and Microsoft...is boring.

Not that it needs to be. XBox certainly isn't, and actually helped Microsoft surpass Apple in a recent consumer survey focused on product innovation.

But not in mobile, or even in computers. Apple understands how to create wicked cool products that consumers want, which is why its Mac sales are projected to grow by 26 percent in 2010, right through the recession, and why its iPhone continues to thrive.

But Apple's Achilles heel could well be developers, which are reportedly tiring of Apple's apparently arbitrary application approval and updating process. If Google can continue to help handset manufacturers to achieve the "Wow factor," while simultaneously creating a more open, robust development platform, it just might be able to beat Apple at the game it started.

In other words, the winning mobile vendor will be the one that marries sex appeal for consumers with platform appeal for developers. Google is on course to deliver, but it probably needs to win big with consumers before it makes waves with developers.

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About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.

     

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