Over the past year, “branded iPhone app” has become the generic term for sponsored mobile applications, but that’s likely to change—slowly—as Apple’s stronghold over the category weakens over the next few months.
The upshot: By mid-2010 analysts predict marketers will need to be in the habit of developing mobile “app-vertising” for at least two platforms.
The change is occurring as phones based on Google’s open-source Android, like Motorola’s Droid, hit the market, and the iPhone’s other big smartphone competitor, Research In Motion’s BlackBerry, reaches the same level of functionality with its Storm 2 phone. Now that consumers are getting an iPhone-like experience from other phones, they’ll be looking for apps. Apple still leads that market with close to 100,000 iPhone apps. Android now has about 11,000 apps and RIM has 3,000, according to Neil Strother, an analyst with Forrester Research. The remaining smartphone platforms—the Palm Pre and Windows Mobile—currently have fewer than 1,000 apps.
At the moment, many developers say they are seeing interest from marketers about branded apps for other platforms—notably Android—though few branded Android apps are actually in circulation. Most of the ones that are appear to be on behalf of media companies or properties, who are focused on expanding their audience size, not marketing ROI. For instance, Reaxion, a Seattle-based developer, is in the midst of creating a version of its America’s Top Model app for BlackBerry and Android.
The app had formerly been only available to iPhone users. “iPhone kind of started the revolution; it was clearly an unparalleled user experience,” said Ryan Morel, the vp of business development for Reaxion. “But over the last two years, there have been additional devices that provide pretty compelling content, so you’re going to see tons of new apps.”
Another early entrant is the NBA, which unveiled its NBA League Pass Mobile app last week for the iPhone and Android platforms. “Multiplatform is a key tenet of our philosophy,” said Bryan Perez, GM of NBA Digital. “We want our content available to as many fans as possible, and with more and more carriers adopting Android around the world, it’s important to be there now.”
Peter Johnson, vp of market intelligence and strategy at the Mobile Marketing Association, said he thinks there’s an arms race among handset makers to get developers to create more apps. “Apps are driving overall favorability to a handset,” he said. “They need to create opportunities for consumers so they don’t defect to the iPhone.” RIM, in particular, has made a push for more apps. In March, the company launched BlackBerry App World to spur more app development. Currently, BlackBerry does offer several branded apps, including ones from travel firm Kayak and Air Canada, but Johnson said that, unlike iPhone users who see the company’s broad array of apps in Apple ads, RIM users are generally unaware that such apps exist.
Because of economies of scale, developing apps for, say, three different platforms won’t cost three times as much as creating one iPhone app (a process that can run into six figures). Nevertheless, Eric Bader, president of BrandinHand, a mobile marketing firm, said that because each platform needs to be developed separately using unrelated software development kits, there are still a lot of redundant costs involved with creating an app for multiple platforms. “Soon, someone will develop a competent cross-platform development (and even ad serving) environment that will allow developers to create once and convert to multiple platforms, but that day isn’t here yet,” he said.
Bader sees branded apps as falling into two categories: ones that provide utility, like retail bank-branded apps that let users check their balances, and ones that are primarily a form of advertising. He expects the latter to lag the former. “Brands that are using apps as media, and have media objectives and measures, are generally waiting for the audience size, composition and activity (uniques, unduplicated uniques and active users, for example) to mature,” he said.
Over time, though, John SanGiovanni, co-founder of mobile firm Zumobi, sees the various mobile platforms developing into niches. BlackBerry at the moment skews toward businesspeople, Palm Pre overindexes to women and Android seems to score with younger consumers. (The iPhone, he said, manages to appeal to all groups.) “It’s very much like TV programming,” he said. “It synchronizes to the audience you want to reach.”