Last week, a startup that I worked for moved on to the great start up graveyard. They had a “write once, run anywhere platform”. It was a terrific idea with great technology. Another, larger company I worked for is now 20% of its former size. They create rich multi-media applications that scale massively. They are chugging along, but it seems like the sure-fire glory that they were headed towards won’t materialize. Action Engine famously imploded.
The premise behind all of these companies is sound. Create a platform that allows publishers to gracefully navigate the fragmented handset landscape and achieve massive distribution through a single publishing feed. This makes sense: a single XML feed gets your content onto millions of handsets across manufacturer, carrier, etc. So why are these companies falling apart.
Contrary to your instinct, it has nothing to do with the economy (well maybe a little). Primarily it is the fault of two factors:
Pricing: The platform companies typically work in reverse of usual logic. The cost of developing an application on one of these platforms typically costs MORE than if you were to hire someone to develop the application from scratch. (This ma in y not universally be true, but humor me.) The reasoning behind this is that the platform is scalable, has built-in billing and subscription management solutions, advanced multi-media encoding and decoding, etc, etc, etc. The feature set can be very deep. But because of the complexity of accommodating hundreds of handsets, the cost of the platform is enormous. It might actually be cheaper, if less elegant, to build unique instances of the application for specific handsets. That seems simply CRAZY. So why are these amazing application development platforms fall apart? Let’s look at some corollaries in the web world: WordPress and Drupal. Both are fundamentally sound web development platforms. They are flexible, offer 100% standards compliance, and are found everywhere from blog sites to major e-commerce sites to rich media sites. These development platforms have been huge successes because they are flexible, scalable and FREE. Unlike they mobile developers, the organizations behind Drupal and WordPresss are looking to monetize the platforms, but rather the applications and services that results from the platform.
Imagine if the mobile application development environment was open-sourced, and if the platform developers didn’t charge for access to their platform, but rather just the professional services. The cost of a large scale mobile development project might be cut in half, or even more. The game that has been learned so well on the web has yet to be learned in mobile. Few will pay for your software, they’d rather pay for the results. No one will pay for Drupal, but thousands of site will pay for someone to develop in Drupal. Give away the platform, and get paid for your work. That will drive more business. It may be too little too late if someone were to open source their platform (are you listening folks that I used to work with…open source) but it would be a breath of fresh air. (And, if you make the platform FREE to develop on (iPhone SDK or Android anyone?) imagine how much more exciting the opportunity is for creative deployments when the content owner doesn’t need to worry about a $200K platform licensing fee?)
The second reason why these folks have/are failed/failing is friction. The friction is the non-standard application of the underlying platform (Java, mainly) and business friction in the mobile ecosystem. There are just too many secrets, too many tricks, and too many “exceptions” in mobile development because of proprietary interests. Everyone in the system wants control of the experience and the money that results from the experience. Handset folks develop funky implementations of Java so that they can control the final experience, carriers block certain functionality because they want to maintain the integrity of the network and monetize specific functionalities, and developers make it hard on themselves for insisting that their secret sauce is better than someone else’s.
The pricing and the friction make large scale mobile development a nearly impossible solution that is so full of compromises that the end result isn’t satisfactory. The eco-system will only get better as the development tools get more standardized (iPhone SDK) and the platforms get more open source (Android) or the manufacturer starts to actively court and support developers (BlackBerry).
The mobile handset landscape is very fragmented, and the mobile application development community mirrors it completely. I challenge any of the platform development players to open source their platform. Proprietary platforms will only result in greater fragmentation. Open platforms are the only way to create massive, lasting change, and frankly, the company that does this best could become THE standard in the industry. Billions and billions of dollars of corporate and personal wealth are at stake. Somebody please take the risk.