Apple's App Store has more smartphone apps than those of its competitors. But the sheer size of the library is not the only source of consternation for Google or Microsoft, which would both readily concede that it's also important to obtain the kind of key apps, optimized apps and platform-first apps the iPhone enjoys. The iPhone's commanding marketplace lead is due to several factors. These include the huge number and historical affluence of its users and the ease of its App Store.
The iPhone, though, was not the first phone to have apps. In fact, in its early days, it didn't have apps at all as the company urged developers to create optimized web apps for the platform similar to what Mozilla is now advocating for its streamlined mobile operating system Boot2Gecko. Apple originally put its efforts into creating archetypical apps for tasks such as calling, browsing, email and mapping. Rather than open the iPhone to third-party developers at first, it handpicked partners for various features, such as Google for maps and Yahoo for weather and stocks.
As the number of apps has exploded, though, relatively few have taken Apple's smartphone in bold, new directions. There have been many excellent -- and many more mediocre -- games. There have been websites and services -- including Amazon, eBay, Facebook and apps from a range of banks, stores and other institutions -- that have gone native. There have been some beautiful reference and educational titles. And there have been apps that have plugged past holes such as voice memos and turn-by-turn navigation. But the apps that have turned the iPhone into a more useful tool -- be it as simple as a flashlight or as sophisticated as a language translator -- have been relatively rare.
Developers must share some responsibility for this, but they can do only what Apple allows them to do, and the business model for something well understood and with potential universal appeal like a game can be far more lucrative than a guitar-tuning app.
Apple still highlights the quality of iPhone apps, trotting out graphically dazzling games to illustrate the increased horsepower of the handset. But the next chapter of its iPhone experience wraps up guided transactions in a package of core first-party apps that are again working with handpicked partners. Take, for example, the process of preparing for going out to a movie. With Siri, someone can inquire about what's playing in theaters nearby, navigate to that theater using Apple's Maps app and present the ticket stub from the lock screen, all invoking Apple's app working with its selected partners.
It's doubtful that Apple will fully open up Siri to third-party developers anytime soon. As the number of topics and tasks grow, it becomes increasingly difficult for Siri to answer appropriately. But there may be other ways to tap into the more closed parts of iOS via Maps or Passbook. The larger question for the enterprising developers isn't what you have the freedom to code on the iPhone, but how you can profit from it.
Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is principal analyst at Reticle Research, an advisory firm focused on consumer technology. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.