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Mobile platform tug-of-war

At a Mobile Web Wars Roundtable held by TechCrunch more than 20 mobile wonks discussed that state of mobile platforms. The iPhone was an object of adoration but not a big enough market to merit full attention.

If you weren't aware, a war--more like a tug-of-war--is happening in the mobile space. The iPhone is quickly rising as the development platform to beat, despite its paltry share of market versus Nokia (Symbian), Java BREW, Blackberry and Microsoft Mobile. In addition, Google's fledgling open-source Android platform is also a challenger to the incumbents.

At a Mobile Web Wars Roundtable held by TechCrunch more than 20 mobile wonks discussed that state of mobile platforms (see the list of participants below). The purpose of the roundtable was to determine which mobile platform is best for developers. The iPhone has set a new standard for smartphones and most importantly developers are fawning over it, and iPhone users appear to be far more active users than those on other phone platforms. In the first few weeks of iPhone 3G more than 30 million applications have been downloaded.

Another iPhone advantage is that it takes the iterative model of Web development and extends it to the mobile client, said Jed Stremel, director of mobile at Facebook.

But the iPhone is not the universal answer from a business perspective. Loopt CEO Sam Altman said his strategy is choose a single platform (the iPhone) and if a feature becomes popular bring it to other platforms.

David Hornik and Tom Conrad Dan Farber

David Hornik of August Capital said that he is excited about iPhone because thousands of applications were distributed after it launched--living proof of the viability of the platform. Like Facebook applications, VCs see some potential in funding in iPhone developers. Having the iPhone app store and not having to go through the carriers to access applications is a bonus for distribution. Omar Hamoui, CEO of AdMob, said the value of ads on the iPhone served by his company is three times other platforms.

But the iPhone doesn't have a sizable market yet, compared to Facebook or Windows, Hornik said. "It's not venture scale," he said. Venture capitalist Richard Wong of Accel made the case that there aren't any developers creating applications just for the iPhone today. "It's about finding the largest addressable audience," said Walt Doyle, CEO of uLocate. Yahoo supports everything under the mobile sun and reaches 600 million devices with its mobile services, according to Marc Davis, chief scientist for Yahoo's mobile group.

Mike Arrington, Bart Decrem, Jed Stremel and David Rivas debate iPhone vs. Nokia Symbian and other topics. Dan Farber

The idea that the iPhone has invented or is reinventing the mobile Web is an overstatement, according to David Rivas, Nokia, vice president of Technology Management for S60 Software, citing Japan and Korea as far ahead of the U.S. in mobile usage. "The idea that there wasn't a mobile before the iPhone is absurd," Rivas said. He also defended Nokia's recently open-sourced S60 platform, saying that it has applications similar to what are available on the iPhone. On the other hand, it doesn't have the buzz or browser of the iPhone, but Nokia produces a phone every 14 seconds, garnering 60 percent of the market. Rivas was asked about a merging of Symbian and Android, and responded that there are no such plans.

Tom Conrad, CTO of music service Pandora, said that the iPhone is fundamentally better for streaming devices and as a multifunction device appeals to consumers in different ways than other phones. Regarding Google's Android platform, Conrad said, "I need Android like I need a hole in the head. The last thing I need from a technology standpoint is a platform that sits on top of buggy firmware, with hundreds of phone manufacturers and different screens."

Loopt's Altman gave Android credit for being more open and capable of running background processes. Jason Devitt of Skydeck gave RIM (Blackberry) props for getting email right and noted that Android has serious challenges ahead. "The biggest challenge for Android is that it is totally dependent on hardware manufacturers and for the carriers to deliver," he said. This is distinct from the iPhone and Blackberry approaches, in which the devices are completely controlled by Apple and RIM, respectively. Developers are taking a wait-and-see approach to Android, which lacks any user base currently.

In summary, developers are enamored of the iPhone and hope that Apple sells hundreds of millions of units, but they will spend their development time and dollars on whatever platforms have volume.

Mobile Platform War participants:

David Rivas, Nokia, Vice President of Technology Management for S60 Software

Walt Doyle, CEO Ulocate

Tom Conrad, CTO Pandora

Greg Yardley, CEO of Pinch Media CEO

Bart Decrem, CEO of Tapulous

David Hornik, partner, August Capital

Jed Stremel, Director of Mobile at Facebook

Guy Ben-Artzi, Founder of Real Dice and CEO of Mytopia

Jason Devitt, CEO of Skydeck

Gannon Hall, CMO of Kyte

Sam Altman, CEO of Loopt

Marc Davis, chief scientist, Yahoo mobile group

Omar Hamoui, CEO of AdMob

Richard Wong, partner at Accel

Andreas Weigend, former chief scientist, Amazon

Tatsuki Tomita, SVP of Consumer Product, Opera

Mike Rowehl, chief architect, SkyFire

Mary Ann Cotter, CEO Cooking Capsules

John Faith , GM and VP of Mobile for MySpace