Johnny-come-latelies “can’t hold a candle” to Apple’s App store

Google’s Android Market may have finally debuted in Canada, but don’t expect it to shake up the mobile applications marketplace as more business users are looking to the various stores for productivity boosters, says an analyst.

Rogers Wireless released the first two Android phones available in Canada on June 2. The HTC Dream and Magic phones also offer users access to the Android Market, Google’s answer to the app store, featuring 3,200 applications, some of them free. It’s the latest mobile marketplace where Canadians can download applications for their smartphones over-the-air.

Android Market joins a deluge of online application stores for smartphones that are materializing since Apple released the App Store alongside the iPhone 3G in July 2008. Research In Motion (RIM) released BlackBerry App World in March, Nokia’s Ovi Store came out in May, Samsung’s Mobile Applications online store is active, and Microsoft’s Windows Marketplace for Mobile is coming soon.

But all have fallen short of the game that Apple started, says Mark Tauschek, a senior research analyst with Info-Tech Research Group.

“No matter how you feel about Apple, they were the first to come out with an App Store,” he says. “They did it first, they did it best, and all others pale in comparison at this point.”

The numbers support Tauschek’s verdict. App Store users have tapped more than 1 billion downloads from 30,000 different available applications. That sort of dominance could be of concern to other application store operators as more business users are downloading (and buying) mobile productivity tools from the one-stop shops.

Smartphone applications are largely targeted towards consumer users. But the pendulum may now be swinging slightly towards business-focused apps, according to a research report out of Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research.

There is growing demand for business-oriented applications from IT administrators at small businesses, and from workers using them to do their jobs on an ad-hoc basis. Almost six out of every 10 smartphone users in an online U.S. survey used their device for both personal and work activities.

Michele Pelino is the lead author of the report Mobile App Stores Are Important to Biz Users.

“We believe SMB workers, [including] sales personnel, executives, and task workers will purchase and download applications from virtual mobile app stores because they are a ‘one-stop shop’ for applications that address their business mobility requirements,” Pelino writes.  

The App Store has categories for both finance and business, the report adds. The downloads help users track expenses or read PDF documents, for example. There are also specific applications designed for workers in specific verticals. One application is a clinical decision support tool for doctors and nurses.

Toronto-based Viigo Inc. develops a popular application for both BlackBerry and Windows Mobile devices, with an iPhone version coming soon. While this content delivery service for news, flight information, weather, entertainment, and more began as a download for consumers, it has potential for use in a business context as well.

“We felt that we could use the technology we already have to help corporations publish content from behind the firewall,” says Mark Ruddock, CEO of Viigo. “We also provide a hosted solution for enterprises that don’t want to spend a lot on IT.”

Viigo organizes RSS and XML feeds into channels that are easy to access on a mobile device. Using the same techniques, Viigo can help a business offer a new information channel that pushes out content from the corporate intranet. It can also deliver corporate intelligence, industry news, calendars, training materials and allow for forum-style responses from employees.

Viigo’s server can be placed behind the corporate firewall for security and controlled with a BlackBerry Enterprise Server. Viigo also offers a hosted option for the service.

But IT admins don’t hold a monopoly on what apps workers can access. Many firms are allowing employees to use their personal smartphones to access company information and applications, Tauschek says. That means workers are adopting productivity tools on an ad-hoc basis.

“But you still have to play by the rules,” he cautions. “You have to abide by corporate policies and if your device has to be wiped, then you’re going to lose your data.”

Google’s Android platform may have to rely on ad-hoc usage to gain traction in the business world. Out of the box, Android doesn’t support Microsoft’s Exchange ActiveSync – a big turn off for many enterprises.

But HTC chose to remedy this problem by modifying the OS to enable the Exchange feature, Tauschek says. Still, the absence of the feature in future models may hinder IT departments embracing of the phone.

“It may limit the development of a lot of business applications in the Android environment,” he says.

Of all the mobile application stores, RIM’s BlackBerry App World likely has the largest number of built-in business users.

Viigo’s experience with App World has been a positive one, Ruddock says. Viigo has been among the top five most-downloaded applications list since the launch of App World and the storefront helped the developer exceed its yearly download targets in May.

“That has exceeded our expectations,” the CEO says.

Developer make their applications alluring to business users by offering the right content, Ruddock adds. Information on financial markets, flight status, and even a distribution network for analyst reports are included in the business-focused content.

But Tauschek is less impressed with RIM’s effort. It is just as likely that developers targeting business users will go and develop for the iPhone, he says.

“The question for the developer becomes: who is going to buy this?” he says. “So are they going to make a $1 app that a million people are going to download on the iPhone or a $3 app that 20,000 people will download on the BlackBerry? You do the math.”

Android is doing some positive things to curry favour with the developer community, Tauschek says. It has an open source model and less stringent barriers for entry than Apple. There is a nice developer’s kit available and a growing number of hardware partners using the platform.

Viigo is watching Android’s progress, as well as Symbian’s adoption, and will consider supporting it in the future, Ruddock says.

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