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App Growth, PalmOS vs iPhoneOS

There’s a chart I’ve been meaning to put together for a while to explain why I’m expecting the iPhoneOS to be the dominant mobile platform for at least the next decade. I’ve been thinking of the role third-party applications played in helping Palm maintain its mobile platform dominance for about that same period, from 1996 to 2006. If you believe Palm apps were a primary cause of Palm’s long-term success against Microsoft and other competitors — apps which were far more awkward to install than iPhone apps, which had a far narrower range of interface or capabilities, and which for a long time didn’t even have a network connection to use, and yet which still spawned the term “Palm Economy” to describe the developers making money off their sales — then what has happened on the App Store over the past year should make the case for the iPhoneOS’s dominance. Here, looky:

App Growth

Over a ten-year period, the PalmOS grew to support about 29,000 apps. The App Store passed that mark about 10 months after launching, and by now has probably doubled it. Developers, developers, developers!

This NY Times article about Palm having trouble winning developers over to its new WebOS platform for the Pre seemed wistful to me considering the lead PalmOS had acquired and has now lost. I don’t think that the Pre’s design or keyboard — nor, for that matter, the openness of Android, which I’d personally far prefer (here’s why) — can effectively compete with a platform that has so many developers excited about it, as iPhoneOS does. An ecosystem creates dominance, and Apple has succeeded at that in an incredibly impressive way.

I’ll be interested to see if the new hardware interfaces in iPhoneOS 3.0 help Apple to build a hardware ecosystem, too. If so I may double the length of my bet.


Sources for the numbers in the chart:

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  • nhavar

    I don’t know that you can do a 1:1 comparison of the old PalmOS apps versus iPhone/iPod apps. There are too many differences between the two market segments. Palm didn’t have a central app store until late 2008 and the Palm devices have always been driven by utility versus a device like the iPod/iPhone which is more of a pop sensation vanity/entertainment device.

    Yes, Apple is dominating and will probably continue to dominate with the App Store because 1) It leveraged a HUGELY popular iPod brand for the iPhone (it still counts iPhone sales as part of iPod sales) 2) it sold MILLIONS of units of both iPhone and iPod prior to the app store launch (~12 million or more) creating a huge market for vendors to jump into 3) It leveraged an already rabid Mac developer stream in a growing Mac market (see 2).

    However, this doesn’t mean that companies like Google, Palm, Nokia, and RIM can’t and shouldn’t compete in the same space. It just means that you can’t make an easy apples-to-apples comparison. There are too many factors that are different to do that level of comparison despite everyone’s seeming need to do it lately.

    The great thing about Palm’s WebOS platform is that it’s a known technology stack with the newly emerging HTML5, JavaScript, CSS, and JSON there are millions of developers world wide already familiar with that technology as well as millions of web apps that could be converted to standalone apps relatively quickly and easily. Development should be easily done on Mac, Windows, or Linux instead of just Windows (winmo) or just Mac (objective c). That will lower the bar for entry into the Palm development arena and help increase the ranks of developers and apps coming in.

    Will that platform beat Apple – probably not, but it will hopefully force Apple to pump out something more than a point release now and again. And hopefully it will drive other competitors to innovate and take some risks instead of being also-rans.

  • Richard

    Though could we factor any time difference here. As most economic charts will account for inflation (eg, “terms given in 1990 dollars”), so to must you account for other factors. Year 1998 is not 2008.

  • Marc Hedlund

    You’re certainly both right that there are many other factors to account for than time — but, writing an app is still writing an app. It still takes time and commitment, and when it’s done, it still adds capabilities to the platform that probably weren’t there before.

    Anecdotally, I remember being thrilled when one good crossword app showed up for PalmOS. For the iPhone there are already four good apps, one of them from the NY Times itself (which never built for PalmOS, I believe).

    Also, you can compare platform growth to current competitors, which at least accounts for the time difference. Number of apps in Apple’s App Store the day it launched? 800. Number in Palm’s App Catalog (for Pre/WebOS) at launch? 13.

    @nhavar, also, I don’t know that WebOS lowering the bar on app development is a good thing for them. “Easier” might well get them a higher app *count* than they would get otherwise, but it could also get them a lot more widgets and a lot fewer useful platform apps.

  • http://www.twitter.com/derek Derek Gathright

    Apples and oranges. C’mon, there’s 10 years difference between them. The distribution and pricing structure is completely different. The usefulness of apps is significantly higher now consider the iPhone has internet access and thousands of web APIs to tie into.

    Hey, at least you got a TechMeme link though.

  • ff11

    @ nhavar, you may think “Palm devices have always been driven by utility versus a device like the iPod/iPhone which is more of a pop sensation vanity/entertainment device”, but taht’s more due to nostalgia than any actual functionality of Palm devices. I will never forget when a friend (who used to write programs for his HP palmtop computer), after examining my Palmpilot declared “it’s a nice toy …”.

    Meanwhile that pop vanity device, the iPhone offers more functionality than any Palm devide has ever had.

  • Synthmeister

    Ten year difference, or not, this charts points to the fact that Apple has brought mobile software development to another dimension. No one else was doing this ten years ago and no one else is doing it today. Apple is the first company to put together an end-to-end development/distribution/advertising/payment/DRM protected system that is easy and cheap for Joe Average Developer to use. This fact is probably more revolutionary than the iPhone itself.

    People who scoff at the power of the app store should remember that no other cell phone is worth buying without the phone. But the iPhone is, and it’s called the iPod touch. That is a tribute to the great apps on the app store.

    People lambast Apple’s system for being so closed but that “closeness” actually makes it possible for developers to charge relatively low fees for their software and still make money because Apple handles all the DRM.

    And opening up the hardware end of the iPhone is going to create an tsunami bearing down on the other cell phone makers.

    BTW, iPhone numbers are NOT counted in iPod sales figures by Apple.

  • http://iphonegamesbook.com PJ Cabrera

    Hi Marc,

    The historical comparison is interesting and appreciated.

    I am very interested in seeing similar ongoing analysis of how Android Market, Blackberry App World, Palm App Catalog, Nokia Ovi & Windows Mobile Marketplace grow vis a vis Apple’s App Store.

    I’m sure I’m not alone in this interest.

  • Brad

    I owned many Palm/Handspring devices, including the silly Palm VII. I bought apps. However, it was a pain. Apple’s simplified the collection, payment, distribution. Sure it costs developers 30 pts to play in the store, but this has resulting in a far superior “economic experience” for everyone–including Apple. Palm could be in Apple’s shoes today. So could RIM. So could Windows Mobile. The entire business system is what made it possible for the apps to be successful.

  • Rachel

    Palm might have more luck winning over developers if they actually made their SDK available. I know a great many people who had interest in developing for the Palm Pre, applied for the Mojo SDK months ago when the form first went up, and have never received the SDK (or even any acknowledgment at all) from Palm other than the ‘your submission was received.’

    Many have thrown in the towel and decided to develop for Android or the iPhone instead, both of which have SDKs available more readily.

  • Walt French

    Hey, thanks, this is great.

    But what about: Nokia, WinCE and any other potential contenders? Even w/o history, what’s out there now, maybe that’s been written in the last 36 months?

    If I were in this space, I’d want to be sure that I had no less than a quarter of the iPhone apps… maybe I’d be OK with one-tenth.

    As another poster sez, we’re talking awfully old oranges against the apples in adoption rate. Terms are different now, when a typical user might have a couple dozen (tops) key apps that get used pretty heavily; in the pre-WiFi days, a couple of basic address/calendar apps pretty well did it.

  • jbelkin

    Palm will never gain more than 3% of the market share in the smartphone market. They simply do not have the resources to compete. They barely scraped together enough money to sell 150,000 phones – they have no money to market and no money for distribution and of course, stuck with Sprint. They “promise” to deliver a SDK by summer – which means they are still writing it and debugging it FROM A COMPANY that took 10 YEARS to upgrade their last OS … they are a marginal player that frittered it all away. The Pre is a nice phone and certainly better than RIM;s touchscreens but can they beat out RIM in the email corporate market? Can palm give away a free phone by buying one as RIm is doing to maintain market share? No. And as CDMA, the phone is worthless to 99.4% of the international market. Palm’s best bet is Dell buys them … and while Dell can afford them better distribution, Dell spent 6 years poisoning their own name so basically palm will be a nice fifth choice in the marketplace after Apple, RIm, Nokia, & G-phones. palm is like a 17-year old in the NFL. While a 17-year old might able to play in the NBA … the NFl is not the NBA … so Palm will survive if they don’t do anything stupid but they are no longer a player.

  • http://www.joeranft.com Joe Ranft

    I don’t doubt you about the iPhone becoming the dominant platform, but I do question the use of the number of apps as the measure. Only 5% of the iPhone apps have over 100,000 users.

    It seems more relevant to me to measure the install base of the platform when determining the dominant platform. Windows dominates because of the number of users with Windows, not the number of Windows apps. Just as the iPhone dominates because of the number of users with its platform.

  • rakker91

    Interesting article, but I’m afraid I have to dismiss it.

    #1: Correlation is not causation. The phones were popular before there were applications, therefore, the more likely relationship is that the popularity of the platform determines the number of applications for it.

    #2: Other potential statistical factors weren’t accounted for. If the number of apps determines the longevity of the platform, why isn’t Palm still dominant?

    #3: What about the number of applications for other platforms? If the number of applications truly has a causal relationship to the strength of the platform, how do other platforms compare?

    Statistical issues aside, I think your “developers, developers, developers” statement is correct. Right now, the IPhone is too hard to write code for, several developers that I know who really wanted to write an app gave up (anecdotal, I know), and has no ability to do runtimes (Flash, Silverlight, Java, .Net). You also can’t really do business class applications, since everything must go through the app store. For those reasons, I expect that Android or windows mobile 7 (IF MS pulls their head out and delivers something good) will ultimately do exactly what’s been done with the Mac OS: relegate it to a niche, consumer only based status. That is, of course, assuming that Apple doesn’t fix the items I mentioned.

  • Patrick

    from rakker91: “the IPhone is too hard to write code for, several developers that I know who really wanted to write an app gave up (anecdotal, I know)”

    I’m guessing that the “too hard” part of the development is really your developer friends not wanting to say “too different from what I’m used to”. If they’re not Macintosh developers, to code for the iPhone they’ll need new hardware (a Macintosh), a new IDE (Xcode and Interface Builder), a new language (Objective-C), and a new set of APIs (Cocoa Touch).

    For many people over 30 or so who have five to ten years of experience in a certain way of doing things, the move may be too much for them. That doesn’t make them bad people, but it may make them more sympathetic to those old COBOL programmers they used to make fun of.

  • Mobile Developer

    Palm what? All kidding aside, WebOS is clearly an innovative and very cool piece of technology. But history has taught us that none of that largely matters when it comes to market share. If that were true Windows would have never made it past 1.0. Technically speaking at that time windows was technically inferior by leaps and bounds. It is sort of funny thinking about that now because it was the UI much as it is with the current iPhone. Come on Microsoft we know you can do it. You dominated the personal pc market now its time to claim the mobile market too.