The Apple-Google duopoly so dominates app downloads there is little room for BlackBerry and Windows Phone

Mobile app store downloads from the four major stores -- Apple, BlackBerry, Google and Microsoft -- reached 13.4 billion in first quarter, generating $2.2 billion revenue, according to Canalys. Combined, revenue from new sales, in-app purchases and subscriptions grew 9 percent from fourth quarter, while number of downloads climbed by 11 percent.

There are a half-dozen measures that mark successful platforms, with money being the most important. Developers typically go where they earn more. That's preface to a fascinating juxtaposition partly explaining developer preference for iOS, even though more Android devices ship and cumulative sales (750 million to 500 million) are larger. Google Play accounted for 51 percent of downloads during Q1. But Apple's App Store generated 74 percent of the revenue. Ponder those numbers for a moment.

Winner takes Bronz

"Apple’s App Store and Google Play remain the heavyweights in the app store world", Tim Shepherd, Canalys senior analyst, says. "In comparison, BlackBerry World and the Windows Phone Store remain distant challengers today, though they still should not be ignored".

BlackBerry and Windows Phone, once dominant smartphone operating systems, struggle for relevance with consumers and developers. "BlackBerry and Microsoft particularly need to continue to proactively work to attract fresh, innovative content and services to their respective catalogs, and fill gaps in their inventories", Shepard says. Some of those holes are huge, with homegrown apps for services like Facebook and nothing at for others, such as Instagram.

"They also need to increase device sales around BlackBerry 10 and Windows Phone 8 to increase the addressable market opportunities on offer to developers", Shepard warns. BlackBerry and Microsoft had respective smartphone OS sales share of 3.5 percent and 3 percent during fourth quarter, according to Gartner.

BlackBerry and Windows Phone struggle with the age-old chicken-and-egg scenario. Which comes first users or apps? Developers don't want to invest in platforms if there aren't users for the apps. Meanwhile people don't typically adopt platforms without there being apps. Vying against Android and iOS, which are more widely adopted and pack stores with hundreds of thousands more apps, extenuates the dilemmas.

Platform Winners

Typically, successful platforms share six common traits:

  • There are good development tools and APIs for easily creating applications
  • There is at least one killer application people really want
  • There is breadth of useful applications
  • Third parties make lots of money
  • The platform is broadly available
  • There is a robust ecosystem

By most measures, BlackBerry and Windows Phone currently fail to meet the final four.

"The strength of app ecosystems will increasingly help to determine winners and losers in the smart device industry", Shepard acknowledges. "BlackBerry 10 now has more than 100,000 apps available through its storefront, showing good growth from the 70,000 it boasted at launch, and the new devices on the platform have given BlackBerry a much greater chance to compete for consumer attention. Its app story is going from strength to strength, but there is no room for complacency".

But the majority of newer BlackBerry apps are Android ports, which signals less-than-stellar developer commitment.

"Microsoft, with the help of partners such as Nokia, is also making good progress attracting some important titles to the Windows Phone platform, but it too needs to do more to make building apps for its platform a priority for developers and also do a better job of marketing and communicating the already established strength of its app story", Shepard says.

Android-iOS success leaves room, at best, for one more platform, which puts BlackBerry and Windows Phone in direct competition -- groveling share at the bottom rather than raking it off the top.

That said, "the Apple-Google duopoly creates certain challenges for app publishers, carriers, investors and device vendors, so there is intense interest in the possible emergence of a third ecosystem", Adam Daum, Canalys chief analyst, says.

Global Trends

More broadly, tracking with recent device buying trends, emerging markets -- Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa -- lifted app downloads. Mature markets also saw healthy growth rates: revenue and downloads grew by 8 percent and 6 percent, respectively, in North America and 8 percent and 10 percent in Western Europe.

"Apps have had a huge impact on the way consumers use mobile devices, what they value, and what they expect from smart phones and tablets", Daum emphasizes. "They are now central to how consumers engage with content and connected services, and how they personalize their devices around the app-enabled features that are important to them".

Mobile app success feeds the whole "PC is dead" debate. Last week, Gartner offered grim forecast for the personal computer, as shipments decline, as smartphones and tablets make heady gains.

"This is a multi-billion-dollar growth market, with more and more consumers around the world now comfortable and confident in finding apps, downloading them and making in-app purchases, on a growing addressable base of smartphones and tablets", Daum asserts.

Photo Credit: David Andrew Larsen/Shutterstock

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