Attack of the codes

It's the battle of the apps between planet Apple and Amazon backed by Google's Android army. Tony Murrow explains the clash of the titans

Tap Tap Revenge, an app for Android 3.0 Honeycomb operating system, is shown on an motorola Xoom tablet. Photo / AP
Tap Tap Revenge, an app for Android 3.0 Honeycomb operating system, is shown on an motorola Xoom tablet. Photo / AP

Not so long ago the word app was solely an IT term, used by all and sundry in that widest of industries to describe virtually anything that was working software.

It was never a shortened form of the word "apple", something that the software company sometimes suggests it might be. Nor, until recently, did it mean a small, often network-based application that any child with web development software could create and send to the personal cellphones of tens of millions of people. But, that has all changed now.

Apple, currently the world's largest software company, has taken internet giant Amazon to court over its use of the words "App store" - Apple have had a section called App Store in their iTunes software since 2008. Amazon want to use this term in its generic sense to sell small applications built for the Google Android operating system, a version of the open source Linux system with a layer of Java programming on top. There are an immense number of Java programmers in the world. Java is used to teach entry-level programming, so it's everywhere. Google and Amazon expect Android apps to take off.

And they have.

A market for small applications that Apple virtually invented just a few years ago is now able to exist without its Dr Frankenstein and thrive in many formats in many market spaces.

Google have their own app store - they call it Android Market - but you can also buy Android apps from a number of online stores. Many app developers create for both Android and Apple's iOS, but some, like Angry Birds creators Rovio go even further. Rovio produce Angry Birds for Nokia's Ovi Store, Windows netbooks and Palm's App Catalog, as well as Android and iOS. So developers are able to code once for multiple platforms and not have the lock-in to iTunes that Apple insists on.

Apple have a fight on their hands then. They have to show their shareholders that they still own the app market space, and they also have to convince developers that iTunes, their only storefront, is a worthwhile place to do business. At this time, Apple are just ahead, but only just. They have to knock down big players like Amazon to maintain their brand and share price.

For all its locked-down, locked-in approach to customers and developers, Apple is a company that helped create the personal computer and knows the software business through and through. It has survived a number of disastrous technology changes, primarily because of its very loyal following of consumers and developers. That loyalty was won through Apple's quality controlled approach to software and hardware. Now we're entering a world of small apps, apps that sit on something as small as a cellphone. These apps don't need to be monuments to coding elegance and seldom are. They can be pumped out quickly without much design or finesse, and "fixed" later with periodic updates. There's less appreciation for the Apple way now.

Apple's biggest competitor in this space is Google. And Google is very much about the build now, fix later approach to development. They attempt to cover the wide playing arena of the internet, yet have only delivered a handful of killer applications.

With Android, they may have an Apple killer. Like so many Google projects, Android needs more polish and better branding. There aren't quite so many Android apps - 200,000-plus against iTunes' 400,000-plus. However, with Amazon and over a dozen other online stores selling them, Google do have a chance to overtake Apple in the next 12 months.

Just recently, as this newer part of its business has grown, another equally ambitious Google project has fallen off the rails. In 2004 Google started to digitally copy books in libraries around the world, aiming to sell them as ebooks on their Google Books website. Publishers and authors protested at first, then came to the bargaining table. This month, seven years after they began, a US Federal judge has pulled the plug on Google's venture saying that it sidesteps copyright. Google could have been facing off with Amazon, the world's largest ebook retailer. But now, as that ambition wanes, it's Amazon and Google together against the mighty "App-le".

*Tony Murrow is a book publisher and software developer specialising in digital texts and author of Business Web, a guide to web development for business owners.

- NZ Herald

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