At a glance, smartphones look interchangeable: one blob of glassy-screened plastic after another.
But businesses thinking about making apps face a more convoluted reality: Despite the early lead that Apple established with the iPhone, the smartphone market is just getting more fractured, putting app-makers in the position of having to serve everyone.
In fact, at the moment there are no fewer than four major smartphone platforms - Apple's iOS, BlackBerry, Android and Windows - each which need different apps, have different interfaces, are programmed with different tools, and require developers to pay different fees for the pleasure of doing so.
And unfortunately, every platform has distinct interface conventions, so it's not as simple as copying-and-pasting an app from one platform to the next; a BlackBerry, for instance, has a 'Back' button its users rely on, whereas an iPhone doesn't.
"Android users will get annoyed if it looks like an iPhone app, and vice-versa," says Aron Ezra, CEO of MacroView Labs, a San Francisco-based development shop. Nor does it help that the platforms themselves won't stay put.
"All of these operating systems are constantly upgrading. Each of those upgrades adds a new functionality, and makes the device work a little differently."
The discord in the smartphone industry puts businesses in a tricky situation. Most development companies promise some variety of cross-platform solution, but as a would-be app developer, the question is bound to come up: If resources are finite, what kind of smartphone should you focus on first?
As a principle, an app developer wants to be where their customers are. That means there are two sets of users to keep in mind: The people who are already visiting your site, and the people you're looking to attract by building an app.
The first thing to do is to pay attention to the analytics you're already gathering through your website. Web servers keep detailed logs, even if you haven't looked; there are most always ways to access them. Web analytics will tell you not only which browsers and types of devices customers are using to visit your website, they'll tell you the specific models they're using. You might discover, for instance, that a disproportionate number of your customers are reading your site on a BlackBerry Torch, which has a large touch-screen and as a result offers a different experience from smaller BlackBerrys.
The second step is to focus on the users you'd like to attract.
"You want to look at the demographics of your user base," says Farhan Thawar, the Vice President of engineering at Xtreme Labs, a Toronto-based developer. "What we're seeing in Canada is that iPhone and BlackBerry are extremely strong," with Android rapidly coming up behind.
The market is surprisingly split. The iPhone launched the app craze in 2008, when Apple unveiled the App Store. And while Apple doesn't monopolize the smartphone market like it used to - the latest report from metrics firm StatCounter puts it at 33 per cent of mobile Internet usage in the US, and 22 per cent globally - it still has the most vibrant marketplace.
Most apps written for the iPhone's iOS operating system also run on the iPod Touch, as well as the iPad. However, running an iPhone app on the iPad's big screen can be clunky; most app-makers eventually opt for a specially-built iPad app.
iPhone app-makers must first have their apps approved by Apple's App Store, which, notoriously, isn't guaranteed. Apple has made strides towards making their approval process more predictable and transparent, but their control over which apps are distributed and which aren't remains absolute. Finding a practised hand to guide you through the app approval process is worthwhile.
All the same, thanks to Apple's relentless branding, when people think "app," they think "iPhone." The device's ubiquity makes it an almost unavoidable first destination for would-be app developers.
BlackBerry phones are relative newcomers to the app universe, despite the fact the devices maintain a strong market share; the same StatCounter report showed that the devices edged ahead of even iPhones for American Internet use. All the same, BlackBerry "App World" remains the smallest of the bunch with around 15,000 entries, but expect it to grow.
Meanwhile, Android is a mobile operating system from Google, which doesn't make phones itself. Similar in many respects to the iPhone - but often equipped with a slide-out keyboard - Android's sales and market share have been mushrooming, especially in the American market. While there are still fewer Android users in total, phones running that OS have been outselling Apple's through most of 2010. Apps are sold in the Android Market, an analogous but less-regulated version of the iTunes App Store.
The latest entrant is Windows Phone 7, Microsoft's brand-new operating system for phones. It's still early days, but the Windows Phone's distinctive tiled interface has been met with enthusiasm, and application developers are taking it seriously. "I'd say a lot of Gen Y's have identified with how they've laid out their user interface," says Mr. Thawar, noting that he's hearing growing interest in Windows apps from clients. Expect it to be increasingly difficult to ignore Windows Phone as 2011 progresses.
Most developers agree that paying careful attention to the particularities of each platform is critical; a one-sized-fits-all solution is more likely to irritate and alienate customers. The process of developing for multiple platforms at once can be automated by varying degrees, but as a rule of thumb, there are still no magic bullets; optimizing an app for different platforms is real work for developers, and a real time commitment for business clients.
It's less than ideal, but if a business wants an app in its customers' hands, it's the reality they face.
Special to The Globe and Mail