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Smule CEO: iPhone is the only game in town

Smule's CEO, Jeff Smith, claimed at a panel discussion Thursday night that the iPhone is "the only game in town" for the mobile-apps market. Is he right?

The folks at Smule, Pandora, Nokia, and BlueRun Ventures may not agree on everything, but during a Thursday night panel discussion on the business of mobile applications, their attention centered on a single device time and time again: the iPhone.

Ocarina on the iPhone
Ocarina requires mega processing power to run, says Smule's CEO. Smule

From the ease of the iPhone's paint-by-numbers SDK to its extremely accessible on-phone App Store and unified hardware and software package, the conversation on all sides of the table both challenged and defended claims of the iPhone's hegemony.

Pandora's Chief Technical Officer, Tom Conrad, credited iPhone's App Store with the success of Pandora's free music discovery application.

Despite implementing Pandora on numerous Java phones and gaining 35,000 subscribers to Pandora's music service through mobile-phone carriers, Conrad said the company saw more customers after a few months on the iPhone than it did after two years under the carriers' wings.

For Jeff Smith, Smule's outspoken CEO and co-founder, casting his audio app company's loyalty with the iPhone is largely a matter of the platform's capabilities. Smule's iPhone Ocarina instrument requires five audio scripts to run concurrently, Smith said, plus GPS, the accelerometer, multitouch, and multithreading. These are hardware requirements he says only the iPhone can handle.

In addition, Apple's storefront takes AT&T's own store out of the way, and makes it easier for start-up developers like Smule to get their applications into users' hands without having to negotiate with the likes of AT&T and Verizon on their own, Smith said. The iPhone is a smart development choice for many companies concerned with their return on investment, he added.

That's because the iPhone's practical business model for developers, combined with its hardware technology, fuels the claim that developing the company's inventive apps on a platform other than iPhone's would dilute research dollars, Smith said during Dealmaker Media's panel in Palo Alto, Calif.

"Symbian and BREW are not platforms we will be supporting in my lifetime," he said. "The iPhone is the only game in town."

It depends on your definition of 'town'
Of course, representatives from Nokia and Samsung, plus other analysts and executives at the event, begged to differ. Globally, Nokia takes 40 percent of the hardware market share, said Rick Witham, Nokia's head of channels and VC relations. In Europe especially, "it's like Kleenex."


Even on this side of the pond, there are reminders that the iPhone isn't the only platform around. BlackBerry also has a strong cult following, which could expand if its own app store enjoys a successful launch as soon as next week, and can continue to attract consumers to its slicker devices, like the Bold and the touch-screen Storm.

In addition, Palm's forthcoming Pre is looking competitive, at least from Pandora's view. The Pre, which will run on Palm's new Web OS platform based on common Web programming standards, could give Pandora a different technology base for sharing its music over the HTML 5 music standard, Conrad said.

Moreover, some attendees pointed out that in a fluctuating market where mobile phones serve as fashion items as well as mini computers, the iPhone will force competitors to raise their game just as users tire of "the same old iPhone."

The Trojan horse
Apple's iPhone may have retooled the way mobile applications are found and sold, but in time, application storefronts may not give the iPhone the edge. The true disruptor, said Pandora's Conrad, could very well be the mobile browser. More sophisticated browser technology will support powerful add-ons that operate just as well as separate applications, but take up much less screen real estate.

Browser companies Opera and Mozilla are already developing extensions support for their respective mobile browsers to mirror the model for their desktop versions.

Until a platform like Palm's Web OS or a super-application like a powerful mobile browser eclipse Apple's iPhone setup, developers like Smule and Pandora will continue to milk the iPhone SDK for all it's worth. "I'm waiting for the Ocarina (music) channel on Pandora," quipped Nokia's Witham to Pandora's Conrad at one point in the evening. Conrad thought for a moment and replied, "That's very 'meta'."