Trends in Device Turnover

What do the iPhone, the EVO 4G LTE and the Droid 4 have in common? They all have batteries that users can’t replace themselves when they start having problems holding a charge.

For developers, that design is noteworthy because it’s one of many factors that affect how often people replace their smartphone. Replacement rates affect the addressable market for apps built for each OS.

Smartphone vendors are increasingly using non-user-removable batteries because that design frees them to shoehorn in ones that last longer. If the battery wears out before the two-year contract expires, users have to decide whether it's worth paying around $80 to have it replaced or whether they should shell out the full, unsubsidized price for the latest and greatest model.

Other factors that influence replacement rates include:

  • Prepaid or postpaid? If your app caters to demographics with a high percentage of prepaid usage, expect your customers to get a new phone much more frequently.

“Postpaid smartphone users tend to upgrade to a new phone every 18 to 20 months,” says Julien Blin, Infonetics directing analyst for consumer electronics and mobile broadband. “For prepaid users, I believe it is every seven to eight months because of the nature of the business.”

  • The end of early-contract-renewal incentives. Until recently, some operators let customers upgrade to a new model at a deep discount even when they still had six months or more to go on their contract.

“Some carriers have started to cancel early upgrade programs because they are losing money on the subsidy cost and duration of the contract,” Blin says. “In fact, for the iPhone 5, it looks like AT&T might have phased out its early upgrade program. [But] some smartphones users (e.g., die-hard Apple fans) don't mind paying a premium to get the latest and greatest.”

Changes to those programs are particularly noteworthy for developers that create apps for specific operators. If eliminating an early upgrade program increases churn for a particular operator, then that app’s addressable market shrinks.

Refurbished smartphones are significantly cheaper than their brand-new counterparts. So if the selection of refurbished devices grows -- including models that are less than a year old -- it’s possible that more people will switch smartphones more frequently.

  • The rise of the must-have smartphone. Some people don’t mind paying a hefty premium to have the latest model outside of new-contract or new-customer incentives.

“The refresh cycle is reducing year over year because of companies like Apple or Samsung who offer new flagship devices -- the iPhone 5, the Galaxy S3 -- every year,” says Blin, who was strategy manager at Samsung, where he advised the CEO about products such as the Galaxy family of tablets and smartphones.

Is There OS Loyalty?
When people replace their smartphone, do they stick with the same OS? Not surprisingly, the answer varies. For example, the week that the iPhone 5 launched, the analyst firm iGR surveyed 1,001 U.S. consumers.

“Eighty-eight percent of current iPhone users were likely to buy another iPhone, and 10 percent were undecided,” says Matt Vartabedian, vice president of wireless and mobile communications research. “Sixty-nine percent of current Android users were likely to buy another Android device, and 26 percent were undecided.”

An OS’s market share can change dramatically in the span of a two-year phone contract -- or even faster. For example, in late 2009, Android had less than 10 percent of the U.S. mobile market, IDC says. One year later, it was 45 percent. During the same period, BlackBerry’s share dropped from about 45 percent to 25 percent.

Another factor that affects replacement rates is the availability of OS upgrades. Smartphone vendors typically offer only one major OS upgrade for their Android devices, so customers who want the latest and greatest OS version have to decide whether to pay the hefty unsubsidized rate for a new phone before their two-year contract is up.

Apple is an exception because it typically provides OS upgrades to all but its most elderly iPhone models. That means the majority of iPhone owners will be able to take advantage of app features that require the latest version of iOS. In the case of iOS 6, it also means that developers have to move quickly to upgrade their apps so they don’t lose customers who dislike letterboxing.

How quickly? Less than a week after iOS 6 and the iPhone 5 debuted, 63 percent of Pocket’s iOS customers were already using the new OS

Photo: Corbis Images

Android App Development: Some Devices Just Can’t Handle It

It’s not hard to find an Android smartphone or Android tablet for under $100. That’s great for Android app developers because the more affordable those devices are, the bigger the pool of potential customers will be.

But there’s a potential catch -- “potential” only because just how much of a catch depends on whom you ask. If the Android device’s price reflects a slow processor, limited memory or an old version of Android, then it may struggle to deliver a good user experience with certain apps.

One example is Temple Run, whose Android debut incurred complaints from users whose smartphones didn’t have the hardware necessary to support the game. (Temple Run’s developer, Imangi Studios, declined an interview request due to time constraints.) Those kinds of Android app development problems illustrate how affordable devices don’t necessarily translate into a big pool of potential customers -- or at least happy customers.

Developers face a similar challenge with Android smartphones aimed at the middle or higher end of the market. A smartphone priced at $199 with a two-year data plan at $80/month isn’t exactly aimed at bargain shoppers. But mobile operators and handset vendors often don’t provide more than one or two major operating system upgrades -- such as from Froyo to Gingerbread -- during a smartphone’s shelf life. So if an app works best on the latest version of Android, its addressable market shrinks to smartphones that are only a year or two old. Additionally, there are also big disparities in how quickly a handset vendor or mobile operator pushes out the latest version of Android -- seven months, in some cases.

How big a problem are outdated or underpowered devices? The definitive answer is, it depends. “This will depend on how resource-intensive the app is,” says Derek Ting, Enflick co-founder. “Games or other resource-intensive apps will typically be more likely to see these issues. Our app, Touch, runs on cheap, underpowered Android phones, but it doesn't run as smoothly. However, the user experience is still acceptable.” 

Android App Development: Going Back to the Future

Some developers avoid the potential problems with outdated or underpowered devices by testing their apps on the very first Android smartphone: the G1, which went on sale in October 2008.

“I test on the G1 for a couple of reasons,” says Sterling Udell, whose apps include TerraTime and PolyClock. “Obviously, if I'm advertising that a given app works on Donut, I need to verify that's actually true. But it’s also a minimum-spec example device, sort of a ‘worst-case scenario’ device. I also try not to over-emphasize the worst-case scenario. As long as an app works passably well on low-spec hardware, I don't spend too much time trying to make it run as fast as it does on my Galaxy Nexus. I figure that most people who own low-end hardware know it, and don't expect miracles. Everything runs slowly on a low-spec device, not just my apps.”

Even the largest app developers don’t have the resources to test their apps on every single Android device ever made, let alone the most widely used models. So there’s always a chance that testing on the G1 will leave out some other hardware-OS-software configuration that could result in a bad app experience.

“But over the three years I've been doing this, I've accumulated a small stable of devices that I think offer a fairly representative sample,” Udell says. “We test every release on all of them before it goes out. Several of these devices are decidedly low-end: Archos 70, Momo Bird 8. It's not just the G1. It's a question of balancing the risk against the time to do all that testing, and the importance of small edge cases (is problem X going to affect enough people to justify spending the time needed to fix it?).”

Other developers see the challenge of “least-cost handsets” (LCH) potentially disappearing if the smarts in today’s smartphones move to the cloud tomorrow.

“I foresee an opportunity for running Android apps in the cloud, [specifically a] thin client model, where the user of the LCH sees and interacts with the app as normal, but where the processing power and memory is in the cloud,” says Terry Hughes, who developed apps such as momentem before becoming managing director of AppCarousel. “Then it doesn't matter whether the LCH is out of memory or trying to run too many apps; all that is dealt with in the cloud.”

What’s in Store

Stores such as Google Play help developers reduce the chances that their app will wind up on a smartphone or tablet that can’t handle it.

“Before the initial submission of the app or any subsequent update, the developer can specify which OS versions the app can support via the SDK,” Ting says. “Play (and other app stores) will take care of the rest.”

Other developers agree that Play is pretty effective. “Google Play already provides a quite extensive device filtering system, and on top of that it allows you to exclude specific device models if they are problematic,” says Chris Pruett, chief taskmaster at Robot Invader.

“For example, Wind-up Knight requires OpenGL ES 2.0 and EGL format texture support. Those are widely supported by Nexus One-and-up class devices, but were not available on lower-end machines. This effectively makes the Nexus One our minimum spec,” Pruett says. “Google Play doesn't allow a device that doesn't meet our specified requirements to install our game. There are similar controls for number of touch points, details regarding accelerometer and gyroscope, minimum Android OS version, etc. It's actually quite a lot of control.”  

Some developers who distribute through Amazon’s Appstore say they’re not sure how that store handles filtering. “When listing an app, you can specify whether it's for phones, tablets or both, but I really don't know what other filtering they do,” Udell says. “On the other hand, I can't recall ever having a compatibility support issue from an Amazon sale, which would imply that they do manifest-based filtering as well. I do know that they specifically test apps for Kindle Fire compatibility before release.

“Most other app stores that I've dealt with either auto-detect compatibility data from the manifest, or have manual compatibility options when listing and app for sale. These usually are limited to Android version and screen size, rarely anything else. I have no reason to believe that any store doesn't honor what compatibility items they do ask for.”

If developers are concerned that old or underpowered devices won’t deliver a good experience with their app, should they consider putting minimum spec requirements in their app store descriptions? There’s no definitive answer here, either. One risk is confusion because the average user might not know which version of Android they have.

“If an app requires something unusual -- especially something that manifest-based filtering doesn't cover -- then yes, I'd think developers should mention that quite prominently in the app description,” Udell says. “But not general device requirements, like Android version or screen size. I'd have much more confidence in the store filtering on these

Chromebooks: Worth a Second Look?

Chromebook computers didn’t take the world by storm when they debuted last year, but the latest generation of the machines may deserve another look.

Last June, the first commercial Chromebooks -- laptops running Google’s Chrome OS -- arrived on the scene (Google’s Cr-48 prototype surfaced earlier). Samsung and Acer introduced the first models. But by fall 2011, reports of lackluster sales began to surface.

The technology has soldiered on, however. Samsung released a new generation of Chromebooks -- the Series 5 550 -- in May, while Google rolled out a new build of its Chrome OS. Also in May, Samsung and Google launched a desktop machine called a Chromebox.

Developers and resellers said they believe the new hardware and software significantly improve the Chrome OS-based offerings. On the hardware side, more powerful CPUs provide a boost.

“They are substantially faster,” says Aric Bandy, chief executive officer of Agosto Inc., of the new Chromebook Series 5 devices. “They also fixed a couple of the hardware quirks.”

As for the latter, according to Bandy, the Chromebook’s trackpad was the No. 1 issue. He noted the trackpad has been reworked and the driver rewritten for the current product generation. “It is finally what you would expect from a trackpad on a laptop,” explains Bandy. His company, a Google Apps and cloud consulting firm, has been a Chromebook reseller for several months.

The hardware improvements, in turn, have provided a lift for developers. Dan Shappir, chief technology officer (CTO) and vice president of research and development at Ericom Software, cites the new Chromebook’s performance. Ericom offers AccessNow, an HTML5 Remote Desktop Protocol client that provides access to Windows desktops and applications from devices including Chromebooks.

“The new generation of Chromebooks -- and Chromeboxes -- provides improved performance over previous generations and … can enhance the speed and responsiveness of Ericom AccessNow when remotely accessing content such as videos and animations,” says Shappir.

AccessNow uses Web Audio API for playing remote audio on end-point devices, but older Chromebooks such as the CR-48 lack support for that feature and some of the newer HTML5 capabilities as well. Ericom, however, has optimized Access Now so that it has good performance on the older generation Chromebooks, according to Shappir.

Chromebooks Software Update
David Hoff, CTO at Cloud Sherpas, a cloud service provider which resells Chromebooks, suggests Google’s Chrome OS update represents a more dramatic improvement than the Chromebook hardware refresh. Originally, Chrome OS offered only a full-screen interface and lacked other familiar OS features such as task bars, notes Hoff.

The experience “felt kind of foreign” to users, says Hoff, adding the Chrome OS has since adopted features that offer a greater level of comfort to people accustomed to traditional interfaces.

“The latest build of Chrome OS has become a lot more friendly for the user,” says Danny Allan, CTO at Desktone, which provides cloud-hosted desktops as a service. “It is closer to a traditional OS -- just the way they do the windowing and the icons.”

Shappir pointed to the introduction of Aura, the Chrome OS window manager, as a good move on Google’s part. “It provides Chrome OS with an interface that is more in-tune with end-user expectations,” says Shappir. ‘Being able to view and interact with several browser windows at the same time is definitely an advantage.”

The software update combined with the increased speed of the new hardware platform has piqued the interest of corporate buyers, says Bandy. He cited a deal his company closed last month with a customer that calls for 2,800 Chromebooks, although he is not at liberty to identify the customer. “It is actually gaining quite a bit of traction in the enterprise space, which previously didn’t pay that close attention to the Chromebooks,” says Bandy.

Developer Interest in Chromebooks

Bandy expects the Chrome OS software development ecosystem to rise in parallel with increasing market adoption. “As more manufacturers … build Chrome OS devices, you will see greater market adoption and, as you see that, you will see more software specifically written for these devices,” explains Bandy.

And while the market for Chrome OS devices has only just begun to emerge, developers have already created “cool extensions and tie-ins to cloud-based and premise-based platforms for the Chrome browser,” notes Bandy.

Apps and extensions for the Chrome environment that help pull in enterprise applications include Citrix Receiver for Chromebook, which lets users tap hosted desktops and applications provided via XenDesktop and other Citrix technologies.

Ericom AccessNow, as noted, offers access to Windows apps, while Desktone has enabled its cloud-hosted desktop-as-a-service offering to run within Chrome. 

According to Allan, Desktone plans to keep backing Chrome OS devices. “I like the model and … we will continue to support it as an option for our customers.”

Ericom, for its part, expects to develop additional software targeting the Chrome OS devices. Shappir says the company plans to roll out terminal emulation to connect to a variety of systems. Those platforms will include IBM mainframe, AS/400, HP 3000, Tandem, OpenVMS, Unix and Linux.

Photo: Corbis Images

Is iOS Fragmenting?

For developers, one of iOS’s benefits is that there are so few device models, a lineup that avoids the UI/UX fragmentation that plagues Android. But rumors persist that Apple will release a smaller iPad, a larger iPhone -- or both -- later this year.

“Personally, I think they’re both pretty likely,” says Matthew Vartabedian, iGR vice president of wireless and mobile communications research. It’s a scenario worth pondering now, as any additional form factor(s) would affect developers. But exactly how much of an effect is up for debate. Vartabedian thinks that any additional form factor(s) wouldn’t have a major negative effect on developers.

“I would think that Apple has included the major developers in its roadmap and that we’ll see the release of the ‘big’ apps -- Netflix, Pandora, Angry Birds, etc. -- shortly after the (hypothetical) devices are released,” he says. “Other iOS devs will just follow along.”­

Keep in mind that more than 55 companies make Android phones and tablets. Even if Apple does release new models, all iOS devices still would come from a single company. That level of control should mean far less UI/UX fragmentation than with other operating systems.

It’s also important to consider why Apple would release additional form factors: to go after new demographics. If that strategy pays off, developers would benefit from the larger pool of potential customers. That’s also an example of why Android developers should pay attention to any changes in the iOS lineup.

“I’m specifically thinking of the possible 7-inch iPad, which I’m also assuming will be in the $200-$250 price range and will likely gut the Android tablet market, though we haven’t done anything specific research-wise on the pros or cons of a 7-inch iPad versus the competition,” says Vartabedian.

New iOS Form Factors: Are You Ready?
How much reworking can iOS developers reasonably expect to do if Apple launches additional form factors? There’s no definitive answer. One big wild card is whether a new form factor will change just the size of the device or the aspect ratio too.

“If Apple keeps the aspect ratio of either iPhone (3:2) or iPad (4:3), it likely won’t be a significant issue for most iOS developers since they hopefully already have elegant solutions in place,” says Charley Price, Hidden Variable Studios co-founder and creative director. “Since Hidden Variable develops for both iOS and Android simultaneously, we already have to handle everything from fairly wide iPads to narrow NOOKs (16:9).”

Like it or not, coming to terms with additional iOS form factors comes with the app developer territory.

“As mobile development diversifies and Android marketplaces such as Google Play, Amazon and Barnes & Noble become more viable, more and more developers are going to need to address these types of issues and integrate flexible UI elements into their apps to accommodate as many future devices as possible,” says Price. “Of course, there are a host of other variables that come into play with Android devices due to the sheer diversity of hardware specs out there. But if you’ve designed your app with a flexible UI system, at least you can rule out aspect ratios as a significant concern.”

For example, Hidden Variable’s “Bag It!” game has several UI elements that anchor the screen’s edges. The score anchors the upper-left corner, the pause button anchors the upper-right corner and so on.

“If you look at the game on various devices, there may be larger or smaller spaces between these elements, depending on the aspect ratio,” says Price. “But as long as your extreme cases look good, you’re generally in good shape on most devices in between. In terms of the background art, we basically fill the height of the device and then crop or expand the width of the view as needed. As such, our background elements -- the shelves behind the bag, the floor, the conveyor belt, etc. -- are all designed to accommodate the widest possible screen or be cleanly cropped to the narrowest possible screen, without compromising gameplay.”

Fragmentation: A Wake-up Call?
Each developer’s background would affect his or her ability to accommodate additional iOS form factors.

“When I worked at Google to help bring games to Android, a common pain point for developers who were porting from iOS was the screen size variety,” says Chris Pruett, chief taskmaster at Robot Invader, which specializes in games. “Developers porting from PCs or developing from scratch generally didn’t have much problem with the variety of screen sizes and resolution on Android devices because they saw it coming and designed for it. IOS developers, on the other hand, were often trying to port code that was based on a fundamental assumption that the screen size would not change. When this assumption failed, a lot of their code also failed and required a lot of rework.”

So for some developers, additional iOS form factors could be a wake-up call. “IOS has been so consistent for such a long time that it’s caused some developers who are not thinking long-term to fall into bad habits,” says Pruett, who writes all of his Android and iOS games to be screen-size independent. “So I think that if a third aspect ratio iOS device arrives, it will be pretty painful for some developers. Others, who already designed for this because they support Android or some other non-iOS platform, probably won’t miss a beat.”

Developers: Microsoft Wants You

Windows Phone 8 is set to debut this fall in roughly the same timeframe as the Windows 8 OS for desktops and laptops. And Microsoft is working hard to attract developers to the platform.

The company already runs a series of promotions and developer competitions around Windows Phone and will provide more Windows Phone 8 developer information as the launch date draws closer. Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president at Microsoft, noted in a June blog that, later this summer, the Redmond Company will have “much more for developers on the Windows Phone 8 Software Development Kit ... and the new Visual Studio 11-based development tools.”

To win over developers, Microsoft must overcome its smaller slice of the market, some technical limitations with Windows 7 and additional issues such as backward compatibility. On marketshare, developers gravitate to platforms with the greatest user reach and, thus far, Microsoft has underperformed its mobile rivals. In a July report, The Nielsen Company pegged Windows Phone 7’s U.S. marketshare at 1.3 percent. Microsoft’s predecessor mobile OS, Windows Mobile, did slightly better at 3 percent. Android, on the other hand, captured 51 percent of the market, with Apple’s iPhone commanding 34 percent.

Windows Phone 8: Shared Code Base

Nevertheless, some developers look forward to the release of Windows Phone 8. Plusses for the new OS include a shared code base with the Windows 8 OS, say developers. The two OS’s will share the identical kernel, file system and device drivers, among other components, according to Microsoft.

Glenn Schoonover, senior security engineer at KoolSpan, a maker of secure connectivity software, says the shared code base means developers will be able to develop one core version of an app and tweak the interface to suite desktop/laptop, tablet and phone platforms.

“We won’t have three different versions,” explains Schoonover. “That will really ... reduce development time and simplify our time to market.”

For customers, the common code base would create a unified cross-platform user experience in the Microsoft environment. This approach may prove particularly appealing to large enterprise accounts that use Windows heavily on the desktop and tap Microsoft for messaging and collaboration as well.

Ira Entis, president of Advanced Technologies at Agilex, a professional services firm with a mobile app specialty, says Microsoft’s mobile efforts may lag behind the curve in the consumer market, but notes the story becomes markedly different in the enterprise space.

“In the enterprise, they are not at all behind,” says Entis. “You can argue that they have a massive advantage in terms of the enterprise footprint.”

Microsoft has a bit of timing in its favor as well. Large customers of RIM’s BlackBerry are beginning to explore alternatives amid the uncertainty surrounding that platform. That’s the case in the federal government sector, where most agencies are weighing their BlackBerry options, says Schoonover.

“Some have active programs evaluating new options for Android, iPhone and Windows Phone while others are in the data collection phase,” explains Schoonover. “This is driven by a combination of factors. One is the uncertain future of RIM as a business, and another is the cost of the RIM ecosystem.”

The BlackBerry price tag includes costs associated with client devices, BlackBerry Enterprise Server licensing and application development, says Schoonover. Agencies with enterprise licensing agreements with Microsoft may find Windows Phone 8 would integrate seamlessly into their existing infrastructure, notes Schoonover.

“We definitely think Windows has the strongest ability to displace BlackBerry in the enterprise space right now,” adds Entis. He says Android and iOS clients -- and associated third-party device management and security tools -- can meet a BlackBerry customer’s expectations. But Windows may offer a level of comfort to organizations in transition.

“Windows, in many ways, has a more familiar management approach in the enterprise that Microsoft provides natively,” says Entis.

Issues to Address

Microsoft’s enterprise play could help the company recruit business app developers. But to attract developers and keep them in the fold, the company will need to address such issues as backward compatibility.

Rashid Khan, founder and chief executive officer of Chatty Solutions, says Microsoft must make the Windows Phone 8 transition smoother than its Windows Phone 7 introduction.

Chatty Solutions provides a platform for creating forms and data-centric mobile apps that require no coding. The company, says Khan, used Windows Phone 7/7.1 SDK extensively to build a platform that lets users develop and deploy native Windows Phone 7 apps without any knowledge of that platform. He says the Windows 7 SDK provided a powerful tool for developing business applications, noting that Microsoft included additional features, such as enhanced push notification support, after the release of Windows Phone 7.5 SDK.

“Microsoft has indicated that they are going to support older SDK applications on Windows Phone 8, which is very important to build the library of apps and also increase developer loyalty, which is a major challenge for Microsoft,” says Khan.

Windows Phone 7 lacked backward compatibility with Windows Mobile 6.5, so developers of apps for the latter OS “were left high and dry,” according to Khan. “The company cannot afford to do it again in the transition to Windows Phone 8.”

One issue Microsoft appears set to resolve is Windows Phone 7’s lack of MicroSD card support. KoolSpan found that omission particularly problematic since its voice and SMS text encryption app’s security token is based on a MicroSD card. The company was able provide a product based on Windows Mobile, but was compelled to skip the Windows Phone 7 generation. Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 announcement, however, indicates that the OS supports removable MicroSD cards.

“That is a big positive change that will allow us to get back in the game with a Windows Phone solution,” says Schoonover.

Photo Credit: Getty Images