A recent history of mobile development platforms

Mobile Phones

Published Feb 2012

Recent developments in mobile computing have been fast and furious. In this three-part overview of mobile development platforms, we’ll be taking a closer look at this history, starting with a broad overview in this post. Part 2 examines the rise of the iPhone and Android platforms and the final post will look at how this has affected some of the other mobile platforms.

In mobile development terms, what we developers call a “smartphone” is a high-end mobile phone built on some sort of hardware and software platform, created specifically for that family of devices. These types of phones feature more advanced computing ability, media-related features and connectivity options than a basic cellphone (called feature phones), which typically only offer voice calls, text messaging and basic WAP browsing. The first generation of smartphones were personal digital assistant (PDA) devices and included a phone, and sometimes a camera. In the late-90s and early 2000’s, brands like Palm, Handspring, Nokia and Research in Motion (RIM) dominated with operating systems like Palm OS, Nokia’s Symbian OS and RIM’s BlackBerry OS. Those devices typically allowed users to capture and customise information through touchscreen handwriting recognition (with a stylus) or onboard keyboards. RIM’s BlackBerry devices become colloquially known as “Crackberries” because of their owners’ addiction to constantly checking emails.

Today’s generation of smartphones also serve to combine the functions of portable media players, compact digital cameras, mini video cameras, and GPS navigation units. Modern smartphones typically also include high-resolution touchscreens, full web browsers to access and properly display standard web pages rather than just mobile-optimised sites, and high-speed data access via Wi-Fi and mobile 3G broadband.

The most common mobile operating systems used by current smartphones are Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android, Microsoft’s Windows Phone and RIM’s BlackBerry OS. These operating systems are installed on many different models, sometimes from different manufacturers. A defining feature of smartphones is that you can update the underlying operating system yourself by downloading and installing the latest release from the manufacturer. Some tinkerers even compile and install their own versions of Android if they are not happy with the speed at which their manufacturer issues updates.

Smartphone manufacturers are ramping up their release cycles. New phones with faster processors and new features are being released at a blistering rate. A running joke is that the moment a new smartphone hits the market, it’s already being replaced at the factory. All in all, this makes for an industry evolving at a breakneck pace with mobile developers and content publishers struggling to keep pace with the products being placed into the hands of consumers.

Newer smartphones also offer application programming interfaces (APIs) and software development kits (SDKs) for third party developers to build and distribute apps that extend the features and abilities of the phone. With each smartphone platform, there comes a host of supported apps, which are either free or paid-for and which are available through web-based virtual stores. The original iTunes music store for Apple has grown to offer hundreds of thousands of mobile phone apps as well. The same is true for apps on the Android Market and RIM’s BlackBerry App World. It seems that users are always hungry for more phone apps, be they for dedicated business tasks like email and reading documents or for sheer recreation like the famous Angry Birds game. Falling in between are countless app variants offering access to social media such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn or using the smartphone’s onboard GPS for apps like FourSquare, geo-tagged photographs, star gazing and even calculating the distance to a specific golf course’s hole.

The running challenge for mobile app developers is to try and stay ahead of the curve, getting a sense of what smartphone users want and writing tailor-made apps to satisfy their fickle demands. Since about 2010, the rise of tablets (like the iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab) and dedicated E-readers (like the Kindle and Nook) have increased the need for mobile developers to consider these additional mobile platforms when planning the reach of their products. Overlaid on top of this is the problem of platform proliferation. Which platforms should you invest your time and money in? And how do you reach the widest possible audience without breaking the bank? We’ll return to this point in a future blog post on cross-platform mobile development.

In the next part of our history of smartphone platforms, we’ll discuss the rise of the iPhone and Android platforms.

Maxxor offers mobile app development services for iOS (iPhone, iPad), Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phone. Check out our mobile portfolio or contact us to discuss your mobile development requirements.