Mobile developers of the world, unite!

Unless developers on all platforms can speak with a single voice, mobile app portability will remain a pipe dream

There's no shortage of trade organizations for computing professionals, but a new group aims to serve a segment that it claims is underrepresented: mobile app developers. The Application Developers Alliance, announced this week, will kick off a marketing blitz at next week's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and other events, with the aim of attracting thousands of developers for such platforms as Apple iOS, Google Android, Microsoft Windows Phone, and RIM BlackBerry.

The alliance plans to offer its members online collaboration and networking services, access to product-testing facilities, training and certification programs, and discounted rates on cloud services from Rackspace. In addition, it will act as a lobbying organization on behalf of developers, seeking favorable legislation on such issues as online privacy and intellectual property protection.

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One topic that hasn't been mentioned, however, is whether the alliance will focus on easing cross-platform mobile development. Currently, the leading mobile operating systems are all vertically integrated "walled gardens," and developing versions of the same app for multiple platforms is both challenging and costly.

As the volume of new apps flooding the market grows, the ability to create apps that bridge the platform divide will be the hot issue for mobile developers in 2012. But unless developers come together to bring pressure to bear on the major vendors, the chances that writing cross-platform apps will get any easier seem slim to none. Unfortunately, I doubt the Application Developers Alliance will be of much help.

Apple and Google tighten their grip
For a while, there was hope that competition in the mobile OS market would lead to increased opportunities for developers. When multiple competitors share the market, each has more incentive to entice developers away from the others; one way to do that is to lower the barriers to entry from other platforms.

As 2012 begins, however, those hopes appear all but dashed. Judging by the various platforms' respective app stores, Android and iOS are the clear winners with developers, leaving all other candidates far behind. BlackBerry App World and Windows Phone Marketplace each offer less than a tenth of the apps that the iTunes Store does, and HP's WebOS App Market offers but a fraction of that.

Why have these also-ran platforms failed to attract developers? It's not for lack of trying. WebOS, in particular, has worked hard to woo developers from the very beginning. When it began to falter, Microsoft stepped in to offer WebOS developers free smartphones and training if they would jump ship to Windows Phone. And maybe RIM could use a little help reaching developers, but if anything, it offers them too many SDKs to choose from.

No, the real reason why developers are skipping these platforms is that they simply aren't selling. BlackBerry was once the darling of the mobile business set, but its recent missteps have seen its market share tumble to 6.5 percent. HP's mismanagement of WebOS is becoming the stuff of legend. And for all Microsoft's efforts to push Windows Phone into the market, including an ambitious partnership with Nokia, it can't seem to gain a foothold.

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