Saturday, May 25, 2024

Have Mobile Devices Grown Too Numerous?

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SAN FRANCISCO — Is the mobile market too hot for its own good?

While mobile devices remain one of the IT segments least affected by the recession, the frenzied activity in the space has analysts saying it’s become so fragmented that it poses a challenge for developers and would-be buyers alike.

They might have a point: While the Apple iPhone dominates the headlines, Research In Motion plans new releases of its popular BlackBerry line as phone giant Nokia seeks new ways to parlay its lead in international markets into U.S. market share.

At the same time, handsets based on Google’s Android software are making headway while mobile device pioneer Palm is expected to roll out its new Pre smartphone in coming weeks.

“The device world is very complicated, with multiple form factors and multiple operating systems,” analyst Maribel Lopez said here during the SIIA-sponsored Software Summit, which wrapped up Tuesday.

Lopez noted there are at least eight major mobile operating systems in play today: Android, Palm, Symbian, Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL), JavaFX and the Linux-based LiMo Platform.

Having to choose among all of the devices, form factors and features can be particularly baffling for consumers, though Lopez, who heads Lopez Research, said it’s generally easier for enterprises who stick with a few vendors.

Making matters more complex is the fact that development tools also vary, though Lopez noted that developers seem enthusiastic about Palm’s forthcoming Pre device and its webOS software because it’s more like developing for the Web.

It can also be a challenge for developers not only to pick a platform, but to decide how much support to give to specific features that may not be in every device supported by a mobile operating system — such as touchscreens, cameras and accelerometers.

“My favorite mobile applications tend to be ones that leverage the device,” said panelist Narinder Singh, a co-founder and chief marketing officer of on-demand software supplier Appirio.

“Apple almost single-handedly brought personalization to the mobile device,” he added. “I actually think we’ll see a dramatic jump in devices with multiple technologies and less commoditization.”

Did Batman have it right?

As a result of the market’s complexity, it might not be unusual to see power users toting multiple devices around.

Lopez, for instance, told the audience that she brought along three mobile devices that she uses regularly: An iPhone, a RIM (NASDAQ: RIMM) BlackBerry and an Amazon Kindle e-book reader. Essentially, she’s been using the BlackBerry as an e-mail device and backup to the iPhone.

“The BlackBerry has amazing battery life, while I’ve had nightmares with the iPhone,” she said.

Panel moderator Chris Hoffman, research director at Triple-Tree, joked that we might end up wearing Batman-like utility belts to hold all these devices.

Still, some good might come of the wireless device boom. Lopez noted mobile providers are already rushing to follow the runaway success of Apple’s iPhone App Store online storefront as a primary distribution mechanism, and she hopes they’ll follow the company on the design front, too.

That doesn’t necessarily mean breakthrough new features, however. For one thing, she said Nokia had accelerometers and touchscreens years ahead of Apple, but that the PC maker executed better in their design.

“Apple took things that were basic and made them work,” Lopez said. “My mom can now do voicemail or even find an app to help her. There is still a great deal of innovation to be had in making what we already have work better.”

Meanwhile, there are few signs that the explosive interest in mobile devices and applications will start slowing anytime soon. In a report released today, ABI Research said it expects mobile Internet revenues to continue growing robustly in 2009, in spite of the economic downturn.

“Improvements in work, personal productivity, and organization are proving to be strong draws to mobile data applications,” the company said in a release. “End-users are embracing mobile data applications such as messaging, Web browsing and game downloads.”

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