A Problem Looming For Mobile Applications

New outlets are reporting today that Samsung is set to open a European mobile application store. As smartphones continue to proliferate, so will mobile applications. But I see a kind of unique problem facing mobile applications to be grappled with in the years to come: compatibility and users being forced to leave apps behind when switching carriers.

First, some news from a PC World piece about Samsung's new store will help to illustrate what I mean:

Mobile phone application stores are trendy, and Samsung has seen that application stores and the available programs have become a differentiator for phone buyers, according to Ben Wood, an analyst at CCS Insight.

Samsung's challenge will be to attract developers, and it will look to take advantage of the applications and content that is already available for Symbian and Windows Mobile, according to Wood.

Right, because several other carriers already have their own application stores. Apple has one for their iPhones. Blackberry has one for their devices. The list goes on. So you've got these software developers all creating mobile applications, but for all different platforms.

Suddenly, the strength of a cell phone company's application store becomes a relevant factor in determining which device to purchase. In theory, the best designed devices should also have the best applications, as they could accommodate the slickest software. So there might not be a huge disparity there, in terms of worrying about the trade-off for choosing the better application store instead of the better overall device. But there's a more annoying wrinkle that should start to manifest itself over the next few years.

You have to download these applications. That means that up to two commodities are required when you want apps: time and money. You need to take the time to seek out applications and download them. This might not seem significant, until you realize you suddenly have about 100 applications on your iPhone that probably took countless hours to find, download, organize and periodically update. Second, some of these applications cost money. I'd guess that, as time goes on, applications will get more expensive as developers no longer need to hook people into downloading apps by offering them for free.

So what happens if you decide that you're tired of your iPhone and want to switch to a new Verizon smartphone or Blackberry? You've got to wave goodbye too all of your iPhone apps. You will also lose all the time and money you invested in those applications over the year or two you had the phone for.

That's a pretty different model than what we see with computers. Computer software is generally transferable when you buy a new system, at least among similar platforms. And there are really only two major platforms out there: Windows-based PCs and Macs. A lot of software even works for both, though you might need different versions.

The mobile application market, however, is much different and more complex. I'll be curious to see how it evolves. What I fear is that mobile apps could actually cause smartphone users to hold onto current devices longer than they would prefer, for fear of losing their investment in their apps. That might decrease mobile device demand and consequently stunt innovation for the creation of better smartphones.

Or, perhaps eventually we'll see an alliance among mobile device makers to create a universal applications store, after they realize that consumers are becoming angry when they have to leave their apps behind. That seems unlikely, however, since those companies have everything to gain from their customers staying with their brand, and everything to lose if they flee to a competitor. I know that, with dozens of apps downloaded, it would already be difficult and somewhat painful for me to switch away from an iPhone. Of course, that might be exactly what Apple is hoping for.