India is witnessing the penetration of mobile phones in a big way. With the number of operators going up, the subscription tariffs have come down. The market is flooded with affordable devices, and with a huge army of software developers, one would expect a lot of widely useful applications for cellphones. Then why is this not the case?
Regular Java phones do not follow any industry-accepted standards. It is difficult to write one J2ME application and run it in many J2ME-supporting phones. Buttons on the phones too are not similar. Further, Java applications won't even be recognised by some of the low-cost Chinese phones.
The Java Wireless Toolkit, a development platform for J2ME applications, has stayed in Version 3 for Windows, and 2.5.2 for GNU/Linux, for more than a year. There is hardly any activity going on in bringing out upgrades. Symbian too has already lost its appeal as an application development environment.
With the Nokia-Microsoft deal, one doesn't know what sort of J2ME support to expect from Nokia devices.
Developing for the iPhone is costly. Application developers for iPhone needs to buy an Apple machine to code, and then invest in an iPhone to test what they have developed. An Apple laptop, desktop or the iPhone are costly for the average Indian developer.
The Windows 7 phone is yet to become a popular mobile application development environment. The BlackBerry needs applications to be written on its own development environment, which is supported only on Windows. This leaves out Android as the only choice for developers.
Android upgrades come out frequently. The manufacturers of the device seem to be constantly in the ‘catch-up mode' with new versions of Android. However, the ongoing Oracle-Google lawsuit sends mixed signals on the future of Android as a development platform.
Leading cellphone manufacturers, such as Samsung, build phones with Windows 7, Android and J2ME. Samsung could have completely relied on Android, but with Google trying to acquire Motorola Mobility, the company might see Android devices coming from Google itself.
In the smartphone segment, Samsung has to deal with two giants, Google and Microsoft, for its software needs. This might be a reason for Samsung to come out with its own development platform, Bada, to assert its independence. To rub salt into the wound, applications developed in Bada work only on Samsung devices because Bada is a proprietary development environment.
With all these technologies and development platforms coming out, where do operators see their money? The Indian market is still flooded with old style WAP applications. Operators see huge revenue in Bollywood wallpapers, ringtones, cricket scores, etc. All it needs is for them to run a WAP server which provisions wallpapers, ringtones, and snippets of videos. But there are few developers available because WAP development skills is not adding any weight to their resumes.
India has plenty of talented software developers as well as small and medium companies that dabble in software development. These individuals and companies develop applications on iPhone and Android mostly for the U.S. and European markets. Mobile application development for Indian market is still a dream. How this crisis is going to be resolved depends on how device manufacturers respond to the needs of the market, and developers.
Mobile industry has a lot to learn from the Free Software development model. India will see a lot of smart mobile applications if a common platform/OS, like GNU/Linux, can exist for mobile devices.
(The author is chief technical officer at MobiSir Technologies.)