App options outside the mainstream

With Nokia announcing the death of its unique Ovi services recently, the smartphone app world seems to be getting a little smaller. The Finnish communications giant has instead chosen to ally itself with Microsoft and its new Mango Operating System (OS) (along with Windows Marketplace) in the war against Apple’s App Store, Blackberry manufacturer RIM’s App World, and Google’s Android Market.

With so few synonyms left for a shop in which one can purchase applications, you have to wonder what remains for the smaller players in the mobile app world.

At first glance things do not look good for apps outside the RIM, Android and iOS (Apple’s mobile OS) fold. By late 2010, the three most well-known names in the smartphone world held around 60% of global market share in terms of handsets running their operating systems. A lot of their gains have come at the cost of the formerly dominant Symbian platform, upon which Nokia’s Ovi services were built. Smartphone operating systems, and the apps built to work on them, are constantly shifting.

Buying a smartphone running an OS which isn’t as popular right now might not just be about “like separating yourself from the mainstream dude”.

“So,” you might reasonably ask, “what are my options if I don’t want a phone running iOS or Android, or a Blackberry?” Even if you’re incredibly suspicious of anything running Windows that doesn’t have two controllers and a green-ringed power button, there are other options. Just not that many.

The acquisition of beleaguered smartphone pioneers Palm by hardware giant Hewlett-Packard has resulted in webOS. Even in its earliest incarnation, webOS was receiving favourable reviews. Its app catalogue has a fraction of the apps of the bigger players in the marketplace but it does feature backward compatibility with apps designed for the PalmOS that it succeeded. This is like being able to play all your old N64 games on your Nintendo Wii.

For Samsung fanboys and girls who can’t quite afford one of their high-end Android smartphones, there are a number of devices running its in-house platform Bada. Apps for the Bada platform cover the usual range of navigation, social networking and general frivolity. Initially, however, there were reports suggesting an inability to multitask between apps running on the Bada platform.

Most of the other mobile OS platforms are extremely peripheral and region specific. If you are running one of the bigger OS’s, you can usually use a third-party app seller. A third-party application is, essentially, one sold outside the structures of a phone platform’s official vendor. A number of these are run by the handset manufacturers but other players include publishing giants Amazon, and independents like Get Jar, which has been running since 2004.

The benefit of a site like Get Jar is that it sells apps across platforms and does not restrict itself to smartphones. This means that if you have a feature phone – the level of phone just below smartphones – you can still enjoy a variety of shiny apps.

None of these third-party vendors or alternative OS stores have anywhere near the same number of apps as Apple’s megalithic App Store, for instance. None of them have Apple’s ability to manipulate consumer habits with glistening design, or the mythology of Google’s ethos, or the ubiquitous functionality of Blackberry behind them.

They do, however, offer an alternative to a group of giants bent on the monopolisation of their market. The fact that the alternative offered by the smaller mobile OS and app players is still in the interest of making a quick buck probably doesn’t make it any less worthwhile.



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