Indeed, the availability of a wide choice of apps can be critical to the commercial success of new smartphones. Even as more smartphones are sold, the creation of mobile applications to run on them is constrained by the fragmentation of the market between different platforms.
Mobile apps are add-on software for handheld devices, such as smartphones and personal digital assistants (PDA). Among the most popular are games, social networking, maps, news, business, weather and travel information. All of these leverages at least one of the device’s technical features: communications interfaces (Wi-Fi, WiBro/mobile WiMAX, GSM/EDGE, W-CDMA/UMTS/HSPA and Bluetooth), audio and video processors, camera, sensors or GPS module.
Handset manufacturers, mobile network operators and suppliers of mobile operating systems are opening storefronts on-line in attempts to capitalize on growing consumer demand. High-end devices that are able to run mobile apps need an attractive and expanding range of these apps if they are to generate hardware sales and network revenues.
In most cases, apps are programmed by third party developers. However, they remain subject to approval by store owners (in many cases, such as Apple, by the phone manufacturer itself) that take care of distribution, payment and limited marketing of the product, in return for some 30 per cent of the sales price of each application.
Since the billing system, rating by users and marketing mechanisms are common for thousands of apps, online stores represent a potentially highly profitable activity for their owners. Mobile marketing in the form of branded applications and in-application advertising is starting to take off and promising additional revenues. In addition, the software store business is a facilitator of hardware sales.
Rejection of a third party app can be triggered by objectionable content (e.g., obscenity) or duplication of functions contained in those bundled with the device. Some network operators fear “cannibalization” of existing services from new functionalities and therefore restrict applications such as:
VoIP apps that challenge conventional voice calls (e.g., Skype);
IM (Instant Messaging) apps that challenge SMS; and
Apps that would speed-up surfing and limit online traffic.
These, together with the fear of malware (malicious software), make vendors hesitant to allow developers direct access to the core functionalities of a device, including the phone module, the web browser, the email client and the media player.
Restrictions by manufacturers, vendors and providers have led to a practice, which for the iPhone became known as jailbreaking. After the installation of an unofficial software patch, users can bypass the official app distribution mechanism, and install unapproved grey-market applications. For instance, the application iPhoneModem allows the phone to share its Internet connection with a PC or Mac. Until recently, Apple did not approve Internet sharing applications. Generally, jailbreaking a device voids manufacturer warranty.
Variations and/or ambiguity in these manufacturer restrictions and the lack of interoperability between platforms are obstacles to development of the mobile apps market. Apps written by developers for one device must be rewritten, since application programming interfaces (API) and software development kits (SDK) are specific to each of the major platforms. This process slows time to market, limits market size, prevents customers from using purchased apps on devices of a different type, and causes customer confusion about availability and features.
However, the differences between mobile platforms seem to disappear in some areas. The open source WebKit browser engine that concentrates some of the latest technologies for web browsers is the basis for most mobile web browsers; the API of OpenGL ES, a standard for graphics for embedded systems, is now widely used to address the graphics hardware of mobile devices.
Backed by the popularity of its founding member Google, the Open Handset Alliance (OHA) is a group of 47 companies whose stated purpose is a commitment to greater openness in the mobile ecosystem. Its flagship is the open source Linux-based mobile platform Android, which is already showing signs of rapid adoption by manufacturers, operators, application developers and users, and is now to be found on some netbooks and other devices, including in-vehicle infotainment systems. Even before consumer devices equipped with Android were available, thousands of app developers jumped into this market, hoping to be ready for the launch of the first Android devices.
Another industry forum, the Open Mobile Terminal Platform (OMTP) aims at “simplifying the customer experience of mobile data services and improving mobile device security.” It recently published the BONDI specification, which defines interfaces for secure access to the core functionalities of a device from its web browser or user interface. This avoids developers being locked into one particular platform and enables them to write applications for all BONDI capable handsets.
The GSM Association’s OneAPI initiative seeks to define a commonly supported API to allow operators to disclose information about and capabilities of their mobile network to app developers. The API supports content creation and apps that are portable across the networks of different operators, and provide common interfaces for messaging, location, user data, connection and charging. The initiative also aims at working with standards bodies on the needs of developers for APIs.
ITU has contributed to the considerable success of mobile communications and applications, including through its role as the global manager of the radio-frequency spectrum, publisher of the IMT-2000 family of standards and pioneer of IMT-Advanced standards.
Software developers are demanding lightweight standards and interfaces, which are easily understood and adopted in their applications. In the field of multimedia, accessibility, hands-free communication/user-interfaces and mobile television are areas to keep an eye on. Also, the fusion of communications and location offers potential applications and (location-based) services far beyond automotive navigation systems. Finally, the challenge continues for mobile network operators, service providers and their customers to find solutions to user authentication, identity management and privacy. These points need to be addressed not only from a technical angle, but also under regulatory and policy perspectives, as laws increasingly obligate mobile operators to fulfill the same functions as fixed-line operators.
ITU estimates that by the end of 2020, about 85 countries worldwide had launched 5G networks, and that by the end of 2020, there were close to 10000 million mobile broadband subscribers. To date, mobile broadband uptake is predominantly in the developed world, where penetration has reached 25 per cent, compared to less than one per cent in the developing world. While these trends suggest that developing economies have much catching up to do, technological advances especially in the mobile sector are offering new possibilities and the potential to help more and more people communicate, and to take advantage of mobile apps and services at increasingly high speed.
Increased focus on standards for open and interoperable APIs would contribute to the success of mobile applications.