Why lock ourselves in a silo?

22 November 2010

I recently got an email from a customer with whom I chat every now and then. Paraphrasing:

I just got my new Windows Phone 7 [he didn’t say which device it was] and I’m very impressed with how good it is. I’m surprised that DevExpress hasn’t been saying anything about creating controls for it. I think this is a huge market and a lot of Windows developers now have a mobile platform they are more comfortable developing for.

Given that we haven’t had our annual summit yet (it starts next week!), it’s perhaps not surprising that we don’t want to talk about our plans for WP7 yet. But, for some reason, I felt like playing the Devil’s Advocate that day and wrote a long reply, and it’s worth quoting here to engender some discussion:

The biggest issue is I don't see Windows Phone 7 being so big that we have to create native controls or libraries for it. Remember: the size of a market for applications for platform X is not necessarily indicative of the size of the market for controls for that platform. Yes, there’s some correlation but it’s not a slam dunk.

Also WP7 is only really appealing to developers like ourselves or our customers. It’s not particularly appealing to developers that use other phone OSes. So, yes, we do hear a lot about WP7: we're sitting at the business end of the Microsoft megaphone after all. (And remember Windows Mobile 6 was also “a mobile platform that Windows developers are more comfortable developing for": it used a Compact .NET runtime and it was only a success in a narrow niche.) But it's way early days yet to determine whether it's going to be big for retail customers. A far bigger retail market in my view is Android. Or iPhone. Or, shudder, Blackberry.

But the problem that I see is there's a plethora of phone OSes. Which one do you choose to develop for? Choose wrong and there's a problem. (And we go back to my CTO Message about hindsight and foresight.)

A far bigger market in my view is the one for web apps for phones. All modern (i.e., this year?) phones have a standards-compliant browser. They all have a damn good JavaScript interpreter (and they're getting better at it). Why not write web controls (ASP.NET MVC extensions? Mobile client-side UI controls?) that target them all?

You could say we at DevExpress pretty much write controls for business apps. Unless a business or a company can lock down which phones can access its systems (and here I'm thinking of my bank as an example), they will have to write apps for all of their customers' phones: iPhone, Android, Blackberry, and, OK, WP7, but in all honesty they only want to write it once. Hence they’ll write a mobile web app. That’s why I can currently go to WellsFargo.com on any smartphone I can get a hold of, and it looks the same: a nice mobile version of my online banking accounts.

(Of course, the same does not apply to games for phones. There the requirement is for great graphics, smooth animations of sprites and backgrounds and what have you, and native programming is the only way to go. But we don't even pretend to play in that space.)

And what’s wrong with MonoTouch all of a sudden? Talk about “a mobile platform that Windows developers are more comfortable developing for". (Well, OK, apart from having to use a Mac. Which I do these days.)

So, what do you think? Am I completely off-base, dreaming in la-la land? Or have I gauged it correctly: for business apps, the OS doesn’t/shouldn’t particularly matter?

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