Number of Apps Won't Decide Smart Phone War

This week Apple passed a milestone that probably makes some competitors feel like throwing up their hands. The company announced that it had surpassed 100,000 apps available in the App Store. And users have downloaded well over 2 billion apps since the store launched. When the BlackBerry Bold 9700 goes on sale tomorrow, RIM will have 3,000 apps available in its App World system. Yikes. Does the sheer number of apps really matter when a vast majority of them are being ignored? Yes. But there are other factors that will play a larger role in determining which platform wins.

App Quality Over Quantity

If you use such applications as Facebook across Android, BlackBerry, iPhone, and Windows Mobile, you can quickly see that apps of the same name are not necessarily created equal. The Windows Mobile version, for example, is difficult to navigate with smaller buttons and more clicks. The BlackBerry version integrates well with your contacts, but the interface looks crude compared to the iPhone app, which puts the News Feed front and center and gives one-touch access to your inbox and chat. The Android and BlackBerry versions lack chat. The iPhone app also presents photos in an elegant fashion, complete with multitouch zooming. It’s this kind of user experience and polish that attracts more developers—and users—to the iPhone OS. Palm’s webOS doesn’t even have a proper Facebook app yet.

Information at Your Fingertips

With more than 10,000 apps now available, the Android Market still has a long way to go to catch up to the iPhone—especially when it comes to games—but one could argue that what Google and its partners are doing with widgets is equally important. The idea is that you don’t have to launch anything; you just swipe to the left or right from your home screen to view such things as CNN headlines, your Twitter feed, or the weather forecast. In this area Android has the iPhone beat right now. Apple has instituted a pretty neat notification system for such features as breaking news alerts, but Android is more robust thanks to the work that HTC (with Sense) and Motorola (with Motoblur) have done to add more functionality on top of the OS. There’s a reason RIM is touting the fact that widgets are coming to BlackBerrys: The company needs to catch up to the competition and leverage its push technology in new ways. Those static icons won’t cut it much longer.

Premium Music and Video Delivery

One of the reasons people love the iPhone is how easy it is to sync every type of media (apps, music, photos, videos, voice notes, etc.) with iTunes. Plus, you can download movies, music, and TV shows wirelessly. A lot of people have been bashing Palm for trying to get its Pre to sync with the program, despite the fact that Apple keeps updating software to disable its compatibility. But I can definitely see why it’s a priority for them. As of two months ago, there were 100 million people using iTunes, and it has become synonymous with digital media. Android and Palm offer Amazon MP3 downloads over the air, but not TV shows or movies. BlackBerry has a good third-party service option in PrimeTime2Go, but it’s only TV and not integrated into the platform; you have to go find it. What the other platforms need is an answer to iTunes, or at the very least a mobile version of Amazon Video on Demand. What could be somewhat of an equalizer is Flash 10.1, which will (presumably) bring Hulu and other premium Flash content to Android, BlackBerry, Symbian, webOS, and Windows Mobile devices by the middle of next year.

Android Over Apple?

When you look at the forecast recently released by Gartner for 2012, Symbian is still predicted to be number one worldwide in market share (I guess through inertia); Android will take the second spot, followed by Apple, Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, Linux-based devices, and Palm’s webOS. That would mean Android will have vaulted from sixth to second place (past Apple), and BlackBerry will have fallen from second to fifth. I suspect that this prediction takes into consideration that the iPhone will continue to extend its lead in the number of apps. So how could Apple lose out to Android?

The reason this scenario is realistic is because of how many smart phone makers have lined up behind Android, and because the apps that matter most over time will be widgets that deliver information users need at a glance. But developers working with Google will still need to deliver full-fledged apps with greater depth and polish. And the Android ecosystem will need to get a better grip on the delivery of premium media content. To me, this sort of progression is not a given, which is why the smart phone race is still very wide open.

Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP's online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark's SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on twitter.

Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.