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I've had the chance over the past two weeks to talk to a large handful of application developers about the process of developing for - and working with - the three new players on the mobile app scene: Apple, Google, and Palm.  I didn't set out to talk about these particular platforms, nor app development in general. Instead, in person at a media event and a conference, and via Email and twitter, some Founders, CEOs, and product managers at a bunch of startups and pretty major Internet brands started talking shop with me. What's cool is that almost to a one, the execs who spilled to me were also engineers who still get their hands dirty with code on a regular basis.

What they said about developing and distributing mobile software in the Age of the App Store was pretty interesting.

I'm not going to name names here mainly because the conversations just kind of happened, and I only thought to write about them after the fifth or sixth one. I am, however, going to seek out everybody I spoke with (and a few others) to see if they might want to chime in on a future article or maybe even contribute an op-ed piece to the site.

App Stores are big business for consumers, carriers, handset manufacturers and, of course, developers. While smartphone (and dumbphone) apps have been around for years, Apple's blend of marketing and consumer-friendly distribution has changed the way we develop, market, sell, and consume software and services on mobile devices. When folks hear that consumers have downloaded 1.5 Billion apps via Apple's store, they start thinking things like, "I want a piece of that action." And now we have App Stores, App Stores Everywhere!

So what's it like to work with the folks behind the App Stores? Again, not to discount BlackBerry, Symbian, or Windows Mobile at all, but those platforms and their stores just weren't hot topics with the folks I spoke with. One product manager mentioned that his company had chosen to develop for WebOS (Palm) and BlackBerry, but he didn't talk much about BB App World. Otherwise, it was Apple this, Google that, and Palm the other. What did I learn?

  • Every exec whose company had worked with Palm sang their praises when it came to app development. The folks at Palm are eager, friendly, and know how to talk to developers and managers.
  • WebOS is great for things like porting a social media experience to an app, but not so good for gaming and heavy multimedia. Palm has already started to address this issue, but it's an issue for sure. Apple sells a ton of games via their App Store.
  • Depending on who I spoke with, Google's Android team was either okay or a total pain in the ass to deal with. One exec at a very well-known company (trust me, you've heard of them and either you or someone you know uses them regularly) told me they decided to ignore Android for the time being because of how Google dealt with them. "They wanted us to basically develop and submit our application on our own, where another company was very happy to work with us from the start to make sure we translated our onilne experience into a great experience custom tailored to their platform." This isn't a startup hoping to sell a few apps we're talking about, but a major brand that could do as much for Android (or iPhone OS or WebOS) as they could do for said brand. From what I heard, Google just wasn't interested in lending much bandwidth to the cause.
  • Then again, a few other folks I spoke to said Google was generally pretty okay to deal with. If you're lucky enough to be working with Google and a carrier interested in your Android app, even better.
  • Android has been something of a mess when it comes to Google's management of the platform and its developers. But it's gotten much better as of late, and seems to have rounded a corner towards maturity.
  • A few folks told me their companies balked at Android development because of a lack of devices and exposure. They're waiting to see if that talk of "18 new Android phones before year's end" really bears fruit before sinking resources into Android apps.
  • Apple's SDK is awesome for gaming and their employees are generally good to excellent to work with, but their app submission and approval process is just as frustrating as you've heard it is. Unless you've been hand-picked as a chosen partner, in which case you get loads of very helpful access to Apple brainpower, but also are often asked to develop and show off prototypes at breakneck pace.
  • There's some concern that the Apple App Store is on the verge of collapsing under its own weight. "There are so many apps now, and so many iFart-type apps, that it's too easy for your product to get lost in the store. We see more potential for exposure in Google and Palm's stores since there's so much less saturation right now."
To wit, one of the winning companies in MobileBeat's startup competition was AppStoreHQ, which "aggregates and assigns a score to articles about iPhone applications on top tech blogs and on iPhone-focused sites. Then users can navigate that data by either just looking at recent coverage, or by looking at the best-reviewed applications."
  • One exec told me that his team developed for all three platforms, and WebOS was far and away the easiest and best experience for engineers and managers alike.  "We'd already developed for iPhone so we had some experience to lean on, but our WebOS app took one-sixth the time the iPhone app did. My programmers were so much happier working on the WebOS version than the other two."

So what's the takeaway? Your mileage may vary, and I'm no developer, but from what I was told it sounds like:

  1. Palm's got a good thing going and is great to work with, but they need more devices on more carriers and a way to let programmers access Pre's hardware for serious game development.
  2. Android is making progress and folks are cautiously optimistic about big things ahead, but working with Google has been a mixed bag at best.
  3. Apple's App Store is where it's at if you want the biggest shot at the biggest bucks and access to the most robust and versatile SDK and hardware for all types of apps. Working with Apple can literally be a hit-or-miss proposition, though, and red flags are starting to be raised regarding the issue of App overload.
  4. With BlackBerry and, perhaps, Microsoft poised to join the Age of the App Store (not to mention carriers like Verizon wanting in on the action), what's going to happen to veteran app store companies like Handango?

Interesting times ahead, indeed. Particularly if Google and Palm can gain some traction by releasing more devices on more carriers in more parts of the world.

Have a tale of app development and distribution? Tell it in the comments, or drop me a line and submit an op-ed piece on the brave new world of mobile App Stores.
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