Send in the clones

There’s a sure-fire way to tell whether something has been successful: the appearance of lookalikes. Remember how the original Sony Walkman was copied by an army of similar portable cassette players, or stroll through Comet and clock the stacks of bag-less cyclonic vacuum cleaners sitting alongside Mr Dyson’s original. Flicking through the digital TV channels, your ears will tingle from the cacophony of MTV imitators. So Apple should be pleased that in little more than a month, its App Store has been cribbed by Google as the Android Market (for its forthcoming phone OS platform), while Microsoft is advertising for a senior product manager and a product manager for Skymarket, its new “marketplace service for Windows Mobile”.

Send in the clones

Both firms are piling in because App Store has been successful beyond anyone’s initial prediction. This may be because it’s so incredibly simple to use: an icon on the iPhone home screen takes you straight to an easy-to-navigate mobile website, from where a couple of clicks will download and install any of several thousand applications. This may be rather scary for enterprise-level admins, but for iPhone’s target consumer audience it’s perfect. Even those enterprise security guardians needn’t be too scared, because in-phone security means rogue applications usually can’t do much damage on an iPhone.

Another reason App Store does so well is that it isn’t limited to the iPhone – the iPod Touch can use many of the applications it offers. But perhaps the main reason for its success is that anyone can write and sell applications there (subject to some rudimentary quality checks and a hefty 30% commission to Apple), so there are many free applications available for download. It’s easy for users to learn to use the App Store with no financial risk, and easy for developers to create and sell their wares – offering a restricted free version with an easy upgrade path to a paid-for full version seems to work well for many vendors.

This new software shop reportedly took around $30 million (£17 million) in its first month, $1 million a day, which seems more incredible still given that many paid-for applications cost only 59p to £1.99 – the proportion of apps costing more than £10 is very small indeed. But don’t forget that many early iPhone adopters were iPod owners and probably also prolific iTunes purchasers, used to buying music in digital format from Apple. The leap to paying a quid for a game or an expenses tracker isn’t huge. Little wonder that other firms want a bit of this action.

Google was first off the blocks in announcing its Android Market (am I alone in finding it a bit rich to announce add-ons for a product that’s still so far from launch?). The Android phone operating system seems to be causing ripples in the mobile marketplace – in some places almost tidal waves. There’s been a lot of speculation, for example, that Nokia’s decision to buy out Symbian and take the OS open-source was a reaction to the perceived threat of Android. Nokia often does strange things, but (allegedly) restructuring the company to head off competition from an unknown quantity that isn’t yet released seems especially odd.

From what little we know of Android, it appears that its first release might not even be suitable for business phones, as the initial SDK has limited Bluetooth and messaging support, Google’s excuse being “we ran out of time”. Until some handsets hit the street, it’s too early to tell whether these limitations will affect just third-party developers or whether they reveal gaps in the device itself.

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