Software development on mobile phones

It’s easy to forget that just 20 years ago, mobile phones were a rarity (and the size of a brick). These days we all take them completely for granted and everybody has one.

All these years, mobile makers have competed with each other mainly by trying to outdesign and outfeature each other on the hardware end. Hardware, hardware, hardware. It’s always been the focus. Making the phones smaller, putting cameras in them, making the screens better, and so on. Tech specs were the way to stand out.

Shifting the focus to software

Something very interesting has been happening the last few years, something that culminated with the iPhone. Suddenly it’s not all about hardware anymore. Suddenly software REALLY matters.

Software has of course always been a part of the mobile experience, but it’s only recently that it’s started to take the front seat. This is arguably the reason why the iPhone has been such a huge success so far. It has provided a great platform that not only makes it easy to develop attractive applications for it, but also an easy way for users to gain access to that software. Customization is done in the software layer instead of the hardware layer. Each user can outfit his or her phone with the software they like.

The hardware still matters, but it is there to enable the software, enable the platform. This is the paradigm shift that we’re right in the middle of, with Apple’s iPhone and RIM’s Blackberry showing the way.

Think “platform”

Of course hardware needs to keep improving and be attractive, but mobile phones have to focus ever more on becoming platforms. When this happens the software running on the platform becomes a huge differentiator (including the OS and its interface).

If mobile makers are to fully embrace this platform thinking they need to:

  • Have phones with a consistent interface and feature set so that developers have something to aim at.
  • Provide good developer tools.
  • Provide an easy way for users to find, download (and buy) applications.

Now combine this with an attractive, reasonably affordable hardware and you have a solid platform.

Some are of the opinion that these new smartphones constitute an entirely new category, calling them “superphones.” Here’s an explanation of what a superphone is, from GigaOM:

If a large display and a robust web browser do not a superphone make, then exactly what is it that defines this new category? The operative word is platform. The creative potential of this next generation of hardware is defined by the ecosystem that each respective Superphone vendor’s platform will enable. When features like touchscreens, browsers, location-sensing technologies and hardware acceleration are programmatically exposed through elegant developer tools, a device is two-thirds of the way to superphonedom. Lastly, add an end-to-end international storefront, and a new medium is born.

There’s also another reason that this platform approach is the future: Not only is this good for users, it’s a great way for the mobile makers to make money.

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