As apps dominate mobile, a little "borrowing" goes a long way

By Nathaniel Mott , written on January 2, 2013

From The News Desk

Apps are the lifeblood of any mobile platform. Without a powerful app ecosystem that covers a variety of tastes, offering anything from calculator apps and games to remote desktop access and email clients, a mobile operating system doesn't stand much of a chance. Yet an ecosystem can't be developed out of thin air – it needs to be nurtured. There needs to be an established market, and time for it to mature.

Most platform makers don't have that time anymore. Windows Phone is a prime example. No matter how many thousands of apps jump over to Microsoft's mobile operating system, there's always going to be an Android manufacturer or a certain Cupertino-based computing company waiting to remind everyone that they have *millions* of apps. Are they all good? Not by a long shot. But they're there, and for some, that's all that matters. So what's a new operating system to do?

Well, in many cases, it seems that the sentiment follows something like "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Or, perhaps more directly: "If you can't build it yourself – yet – borrow from someone who can." And that's exactly what new platforms are doing.

Some, like Sailfish, the gesture-driven operating system developed by Jolla, and BlackBerry, that nascent platform that graced belt holsters for a few decades, have decided to work with Android. Both will offer their own app marketplaces and encourage developers to go fully native, but Android app support offers a bridge between Google's operating system and the software trying to topple it.

Others, like Mozilla's Firefox OS and the freshly-announced "Ubuntu for phones," developed by Canonical, are betting on Web technologies to bolster their at-launch offerings. That is one of the promises of HTML5 and other Web technologies, after all – developers shouldn't have to tinker with the arcane rules and restrictions of a variety of platforms, they should be able to write once and be able to have their apps run anywhere.

There are some clear benefits to this strategy. A company choosing to support other platforms and make it easier to switch to their offerings is preferable to a company that sticks its fingers in its ears and yells "Na na na I can't hear you!" Hell, even Apple gives customers an option to load Windows on their Macs so they can switch hardware without having to learn a brand new operating system. Mobile operating systems not named Android or iOS don't have the luxury of time and need to offer a respectable number of apps at launch, and piggy-backing off another operating system or technology allows them to do so.

Whether or not these solutions are viable in the long-term is hard to gauge. If operating systems like Sailfish are going to be shiny new wrappers for Android apps, why not simply create a new Android "skin" and build off what Google has built just a bit more? (Let's pretend for a minute that companies other than Samsung strike it rich with Android.) And, as much as HTML5 and Web technologies have progressed over the last year, there's still a heavy dose of skepticism surrounding the idea that HTML5-built operating systems are ready for prime time.

Still, for now, there aren't too many options for new platform-makers. They need apps, and they need them yesterday. Otherwise we're back to a two-horse race surrounded by a few outliers (and their rabid fans, of course).

Perhaps, in this context, the best way to think of an app ecosystem is as a bucket of nails. A nail doesn't care much about how it's used or who's using it, so long as the driving force is the right fit and gets the job done. Android and Web-based apps are the same way – so long as the platform can handle the apps, they couldn't care less about whether they're running on Sailfish or Android or BlackBerry or whatever.

But, at the same time, nails are designed to keep things in their place. Once it's through, it's through, and it's hard to separate whatever got in the way of their points. A user doesn't stick with a platform because of some strange compulsion or fanatical devotism – well, not usually, anyway – but stays instead because one app or another has nailed him in.

[Image Credit: Johan Larsson]