Mobile apps create smartphone loyalty, says Gartner

Written By technotheory on Saturday, May 21, 2011 | 2:57 PM

Research findings point to possible difference in thinking between platform owners and developers - Analyst firm Gartner released its latest mobile handset sales data yesterday, including a chart ranking Android, Symbian, iPhone, BlackBerry and Windows Phone by smartphone sales to end users in the first quarter of 2011. The "sales" part of that is important, since many other reports of this kind focus purely on shipments.

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If Gartner's figures are on the money, then 36.3m Android smartphones were sold in Q1, with Google's OS having blazed past Symbian (27.6m), putting their market share of new sales in the quarter at 36% and 27.4% respectively. Apple's iOS takes third place with 16.9m sales and a market share of 16.8%, with BlackBerry in fourth with 13m and a 12.9% share.

Gartner pegs sales of Microsoft-powered smartphones at 3.7m units for Q1, with a 3.6% market share, although the company claims that only 1.6m of those were running the new Windows Phone 7 OS, suggesting that Microsoft will have to wait for the first Nokia WP7 devices before its platform takes off.

There's plenty of food for thought (and argument) for app developers there, but actually the most interesting thing about Gartner's latest research is this comment from its principal research analyst Roberta Cozza:

"Every time a user downloads a native app to their smartphone or puts their data into a platform's cloud service, they are committing to a particular ecosystem and reducing the chances of switching to a new platform. This is a clear advantage for the current stronger ecosystem owners Apple and Google. As well as putting their devices in the context of a broader ecosystem, manufacturers must start to see their smartphones as part of a computing continuum."

In a nutshell: apps are creating loyalty. Persuading someone to switch smartphone OS is about more than a whizzy new user interface or impressive hardware features in a new handset. It's about answering the question "Which of the apps I use now are available on your platform, and for the ones that aren't, what have you got that's better?"

This is partly why the iPod touch is such an important device for Apple, acting as a gateway device to the iPhone for owners of other smartphones – and particularly for the children whose parents are buying them an iPod touch in lieu of a DS or PSP.

The fact that apps create loyalty is also why Microsoft (and others, but it's being the most open about it) are fiercely courting the top iOS developers to bring their apps to its platform. Witness its soon-to-launch Must Have Games promotion on Windows Phone 7, which includes Doodle Jump, Plants Vs Zombies and Angry Birds.

Creating loyalty isn't just about matching what Apple and Google have on their app stores, though. Every platform owner is keen to have unique apps and games, whether through their own features (Xbox Live being Microsoft's example), or through developers making use of their APIs to add platform-specific features. RIM wants BlackBerry developers to make "Super Apps", for example, while Microsoft wants Windows Phone 7 apps to conform to its platform's visual aesthetic.

The conflict may come with developers who want to launch their apps across as many different smartphones as possible with the minimum of porting hassles. Or to put it another way, developers are focused on creating a loyal base of users for their apps, more than reworking those apps to help create loyalty to particular platforms.

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