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(Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
(Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Software

App creators face twists and turns on journey to your phone Add to ...

One million new users in the span of two weeks was a staggering achievement for a startup, let alone one operating in the mobile space.

Until some of them began to disappear. In late November, Kik Messenger, an app similar to the popular BlackBerry Messenger chat client, was removed from Research In Motion's BlackBerry App World - taking nearly 40 per cent of Kik's users with it. The app was, allegedly, too similar to RIM's own.

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For Kik Interactive Ltd.'s chief executive officer Ted Livingston, the decision was "a huge blow" for the Waterloo, Ont.-based company. But it wasn't a death sentence. Today, Kik Messenger operates on most major mobile platforms, including iOS, Android and Windows Phone 7, and it has more than 3 million users - even without the former BlackBerry audience.

Not all startups are as lucky. For new developers planning to enter the lucrative mobile marketplace, it's crucial to understand the challenges of application design and the potential pitfalls of the app-submission process.

It takes more than a great idea to achieve critical and financial success.

"You have to ask yourself who your target demographic is, and the type of app you're looking to create," said Corey Forbus, vice-president of mobile development at the popular online music streaming service Grooveshark. "We're a small company. We only have so many resources. We attack the platforms we think the majority of our existing users will see benefit in."

That's where knowing the marketplace is key. On each mobile platform, the approval process differs greatly.

Most platforms have separate technical and content guidelines that developers are required to follow. Both Apple and RIM, for example, forbid applications that emulate one of their own apps too closely - one of the prevailing theories behind Grooveshark's continued absence from Apple's store, and the same reason for Kik Messenger's exclusion last year.

As for content, Apple, RIM and Microsoft all have long-standing policies that forbid things such as nudity, sexual themes or extreme depictions of violence. Any one of these factors is enough to have an app rejected almost immediately, and guidelines are often checked and verified by a dedicated team of employees.

But while some might perceive the measures as draconian, many developers stress that things aren't as bad as they seem - technical and content guidelines exist to ensure developers are building the highest quality apps possible.

Gladstone Grant, vice-president of Microsoft Canada's developer and platform group, echoes those thoughts. The intention with Windows Phone 7, he said, is to create a transparent marketplace where developers are involved in the certification process as much as possible.

"If an application fails, we're going to provide a detailed report on exactly why and where, helping that developer pinpoint the issue quickly, and get the app into the market."

That's similar to the Android marketplace, where bug reports and even device-specific information is made available to developers looking to diagnose potential problems.

But while the app store submission process is a common concern for most developers, many fail to recognize issues posed by the phones themselves. Back at Kik, where the company's messaging application is available on almost every current mobile platform, fragmentation is a common concern.

"There's so many devices made by so many different manufacturers, with different screen sizes and operating system versions," Kik Interactive's head of development Chris Best explained. "The only solution is to test as widely as you can."

Otherwise, cautioned Grooveshark's Mr. Forbus, "you're aiming at six targets with one dart."

A common strategy is to target specific devices or operating systems where users will see the best results, and to expand support when time, budget and resources allow. Mr. Best recommended conducting private beta tests on platforms that allow it, such as Android and BlackBerry, which can produce valuable data with little developer involvement.

The goal, however, isn't to reinvent the wheel, or even the next Angry Birds. In Kik's case, the idea was as simple as an instant messaging client - derivative perhaps, but the difference, Mr. Best stressed, was "doing it better than anyone else."

Rules of admission

Apple has a reputation for maintaining one of the strictest app stores around, but it's not the only provider to lay down the law. Here are a few of each mobile marketplace's more curious rules and regulations.

Microsoft's Windows Phone 7:

  • Like Apple, if you're planning to include an image or video of a smartphone or PDA in your app, it had better be generic - or, at the very least, a WP7 device.
  • Microsoft seems to be taking performance concerns especially seriously. An application must render its first screen within just five seconds of launch, and be operable after 20.
  • Unlike Android, an application must run on "any Windows Phone 7 device, regardless of model, screen size, keyboard hardware and manufacturer." It should be interesting to see whether that changes.

Google's Android

  • Here's a handy one for indecisive users: Those who purchase your app can request a refund within 15 minutes.
  • You can't distribute any application that includes its own store, such as Amazon's Kindle.
  • While Google has no formal process for monitoring apps, the company can and will remove them from Android phones remotely if they are found to violate the developer agreement

Apple's iOS

  • Apple gets lots of flak for rejecting apps, but unknown to most there is an appeals board for developers who feel they've been treated unfairly. "If you run to the press and trash us, it never helps," the company's documentation notes.
  • Apple takes its brand very seriously. Misspell any of its flagship products and you can expect a speedy rejection.
  • Apps that mention competing platforms or phones, even in descriptions or metadata, are forbidden.

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