Industry Fragmentation in Mobile Application Development

With the number of people using mobile devices increasing exponentially each year, several companies are entering into the mobile application development market. This has led to the proliferation of mobile operating systems. In many other industries, this increased level of competition would benefit consumers. In the mobile application development industry however, it has lead to industry fragmentation.

Fragmentation is a phenomenon commonly experienced in information technology and computing related industries. Fragmentation occurs when there are several standards or platforms in the industry. This prevents developers from accessing the full scope of the market and forces them to focus only on the most popular platforms. Only developers with an unusual wealth of resources are able to cater to the full market. Even large companies have attested to the detrimental effects of fragmentation in the mobile applications market. In February 2010, the BBC announced plans to launch a mobile news application. During this announcement, they criticised fragmentation within the mobile applications market saying it prevented them from reaching all consumers equally and that until a solution is found profitability in the mobile application industry will suffer.

Fragmentation prevents smaller developers from entering the market for a number of reasons. Firstly, it increases costs. In a fragmented market, prospective developers will be forced to comply with a myriad of different standards and procedures in order to take their application to market. This raises the cost and time involved in developing an application and acts as a barrier to smaller or newer developers. In turn, this is detrimental to consumers as it reduces choice in the market. Developers must also incur considerable cost to learn how to develop for a particular platform. In a fragmented market, it is often difficult to predict which platforms will become dominant and have a larger install base. If developers choose a platform that is phased out later or becomes a niche platform, they will have wasted valuable time and money.

Fragmentation in the market also prevents developers of highly technical or targeted applications from entering the market and making a profit. Highly technical applications are difficult to port across platforms and or often targeted at a specific niche audience. If the audience is split across a number of devices, it is unlikely that such applications will be profitable at market.

Fragmentation in the mobile devices market is a relatively new phenomenon. In the early 2000s there were very few mainstream mobile device operating systems, Palm, Windows Mobile and Blackberry. Less than a decade later there are over three times those numbers with new platforms emerging such as Android, iPhone and more variations of Palm, Symbian and Windows platforms. With no system completely dominant in one area, it is increasingly difficult for developers to reach their target markets. Each mobile platform also tends to have its own digital distribution channel. Distribution across different channels also adds to the costs incurred by developers as they have to comply with the rules of each distribution channel and pay a percentage of their revenue to each store.

Fragmentation stems from having so many mobile operating systems and therefore is can only be tackled by the owners platforms cooperating to find a solution. The best example of this to date is an industry alliance, the Wholesale Applications Community. This alliance consists of 24 mobile companies including Samsung, LG, Sony Ericsson and Orange. The aim of this alliance is to create a mobile distribution channel that distributes applications to all devices irrespective of the mobile platform. They aim to create this common standard for mobile applications within the next 12 months.

A common standard for mobile applications is the best way to tackle fragmentation in the long term. However, some developers have started to develop mobile web applications instead of native mobile applications. Although web applications do not have the functionality of native applications, any device with a recent internet browser can access them. Mobile Web application development has become more viable in recent years as mobile browsers have improved and have support for scripting languages such as JavaScript.

However, web application development is not ideal for many developers, especially those developing complex applications. With the formation of the Wholesale Applications Community and the cooperation of many of the major firms in the mobile development market, it seems that a concerted effort is being made to deal with fragmentation in the industry. As long as the interests of all the firms in the Wholesale Applications Community continue to converge, it is likely that the negative impact of fragmentation on developers and consumers will be greatly lessened.