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Smartphone Operating Systems: A Developer's Perspective

Apple's iPhone is either loved or loathed, for as many reasons as there are users. However, there's one fact that everyone can agree on about the device: it shook up the smartphone industry. Despite Apple's coming late to the party in 2007, by the end of 2008 the iPhone had rocketed to second or third place in U.S. smartphone market and upstaging other vendors who have been selling smartphones for over a decade. Depending upon whose market report you consult, along with the surges and slides of smartphone sales, these positions are subject to change over the coming months, but there's no disputing that the iPhone has altered the landscape forever.

What is the secret sauce to the iPhone's success? Feature-wise, the iPhone's hardware hardly makes a compelling case, as it lacks certain features found on other smartphones. However, what the iPhone does, it does effectively and easily. In a single word, the features that the iPhone offer are *useable*. To prove this, all you have to do is take a look at the picture submission statistics of Flickr, a popular photo-sharing site. The graphs on the site's Camera Finder page, which track the volume of photo submissions by device, reveal that the iPhone postings easily outpaced other smartphones with much better cameras. Furthermore, at the end of 2008, the iPhone temporarily matched the submission volume from several high-end digital cameras. What drove this volume was not the camera capabilities of the iPhone, but that its owner can snap and send photos easily and quickly to any web site.

Another factor in the iPhone's success is its means of application distribution. This is done through Apple's App Store, which leverages the familiarity and infrastructure of Apple's iTune software which many people already use to search for and purchase music. While network operators have had their own ways to distribute software, it's obvious that the App Store's quick access to the goods has made the difference, as the store was making $1 million a day a month after its launch in 2008.

What Apple has shown is that an easy-to-use platform, with ready access to applications, can carve out a section of the smartphone market filled with established players. Apple has fired the opening shot in the battle for the next stage in personal computing#the era of the smartphone. "Apple's iPhone radically redefined the concept of the smartphone, and RIM's Storm is obviously the first response," said Tom R. Halfhill, senior analyst for In-Stat's Microprocessor Report. "The huge software community that Apple is building around the iPhone is as revolutionary as the iPhone's hardware design. Google's Android could expand the concept even further by encouraging a more open approach to both hardware and software development."

The existing stewards of the smartphone market, such as Nokia, Microsoft, and Research In Motion, are not going to stand by and let upstarts like Apple and Google grab market share. Already they are beginning to counter with smartphones that offer a touch screen, accelerometers, and location services. However, the situation is complicated by the demands of the network operators, who want to be more than just dumb pipes carrying data and want to make money on services.

As the battle lines form, this is a time of opportunity for developers. Apple's App Store has shown that developers can write software that adds value to the platform — and just as important, distribute them in a way that they can make money. The industry stewards have countered Apple's move with their own application stores, so there's a huge opportunity to write the "killer app" for one of several smartphone platforms.

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