The app boom: iPhone, BlackBerry, Symbian or Windows Mobile?

The mobile app market is booming, with businesses of all shapes and sizes eager to get their brand out in the form of an app. A fairly significant problem with developing mobile apps – and one that isn’t likely to go away anytime soon – is that there are a variety of mobile operating systems you have to take in to consideration, which translates into additional development time and cost.

Think Microsoft Windows and Apple’s OSX. If you wanted to create a desktop application that targeted the majority of computer users, in most cases the choice is simple, given that 80% of personal computers are operating Windows – compared to 10% that use OSX.

In the world of personal computers it’s feasible for a single application to run on the majority of hardware since computer hardware is pretty standard across the board – particularly the user interaction peripherals (i.e. reasonable sized screen, keyboard and mouse). In the desktop world, you can safely choose a single operating system to target purely based on operating system (OS) penetration.

In mobile, device architectures vary drastically from manufacturer to manufacturer; in particular the user interaction elements – from keypad layouts to screen size to methods of interaction. The decision is far more complicated than simply deciding between Microsoft and Apple. In the mobile space, there are five major mobile operating systems: Symbian (Mostly Nokia Smartphones), RIM (Blackberry), iPhone OS (Apple), Android (Numerous handset manufacturers have adopted this: HTC, Motorola, Sony Ericsson) and Windows Mobile (Microsoft). If you wanted an app to run on all these devices, software would have to be rewritten for each OS. This is costly, which can often lead to the decision to target one or two platforms; or at the very least a staggered development approach. So which mobile platform should you choose to develop for first?

Most people base their decisions on statistics. Although stats can provide valuable insights, when used in isolation they tend to only tell half the truth – such as the fact that Facebook gives us syphilis.

Lets take a look at some stats on mobile usage rates in the hope that we can better determine which mobile operating systems are the most important to target. For this we turn to Admob; who releases mobile metric data on a regular basis. This statistical data is based on the adverts they serve via the web.

When browsing the internet via your mobile phone, there are typically adverts that are shown on the mobi site. Whenever these adverts are served, the mobile device that requested the adverts are recorded by Admob, and these are the metrics they release.

Based on these statistics, these are the percentage of requests made globally and in South Africa:

Symbian 81% (SA) 18% (Globally)
RIM 8% (SA) 4% (Globally)
iPhone 6% (SA) 50% (Globally)
Windows Mobile 4% (SA) 2% (Globally)
Android 1% (SA) 24% (Globally)

At first glance, these figures confirm what most assume – that there are vast differences in mobile penetration and usage rates in South Africa compared to the global market. It is important to note that these metrics also do not represent true device penetration rates. It only tells us the percentage of adverts served to a mobile device from mobi sites.

In South Africa, Symbian has the highest percentage. It could be that people with a Symbian phone don’t have any other on-demand access to the internet (such as ADSL at home or unrestricted internet at the office) besides their mobile; and so these users are forced to surf the web more with their phone.

RIM users might surf the web more with their phones as all their data is free, while iPhone users might surf the web less as it could be likely that most iPhone users have other means of accessing the internet.

Lets look at an example of wanting to develop a mobile app to reach the most users possible. Let’s say you want to release a graphic novel reader app targeting South African users . A graphic novel reader is a simple application whereby you present large amounts of text and images displayed on the user’s mobile phone. Downloading and displaying the content can be done on any phone, so technology-wise, all phones are capable and viable options.

If we assumed the Admob metrics to be an accurate representation of the different mobile OS usage, Symbian devices seem like a clear winner as they have the majority of the market. Does that mean we should focus on a Symbian app first?

Roughly 10% of Symbian devices have a large enough screen to provide a comfortable image and text viewing user experience. Another factor besides usability to consider is the distribution channels associated with apps on each OS. The exponential growth of mobile apps is largely related to the mobile application stores available to browse, search and download new applications. The app store Symbian uses is the Nokia OVI Store. The OVI store has not been welcomed by consumers and tech gurus alike largely due to its poor search functionality, unintuitive usability and high number of glitches. The percentage of people that use the OVI store compared to Apple’s app store is significantly skewed.

Now lets consider the same app on an iPhone. In comparison to Symbian devices, all iPhone’s have a large screen that can effectively be used to read large amounts of content and detail. The App store is also far more accessible and user-friendly. Developing for iPhones is far easier than for Symbian – you’re likely to pay half the price for an iPhone app than that for a Symbian equivalent.

Android devices provide a similar user experience and development costs to the iPhone and many new handset makers are adopting this mobile OS. It is seen as an upcoming popular mobile OS, however it has not been adopted by many South Africans.

When developing an app it’s clear that penetration rates cannot be the only factor considered in deciding on what platforms to develop for. These need to be combined with the technical capability of handsets, the limits the handset presents in terms of user experience, and the user profile of each OS.



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