Apple’s iPod touch remains an underappreciated part of its success with the iPhone app platform.
Meanwhile, Apple’s rivals — especially Google Android and Palm — are suffering from comparitively weaker app platforms and lower developer interest. These are crucial battles to win in the next-gen smartphone war.
Perhaps they should seek to replicate some of Apple’s success by creating their own no-contract, wi-fi-only devices that run their respective app platforms.
A good, no-contract device at the right price could increase the overall size of the Android and Palm WebOS markets, giving developers more reason to invest in those platforms — further improving them.
iPod touch owners represent a healthy percentage — more than one-third — of the iPhone OS market. They download apps at a good clip, especially games. And the iPod touch opens up younger markets. Kids might not be as trusted with iPhones, which carry a $70/month contract and a high replacement price.
A no-contract device would allow more developers to own one, and therefore give more of them an incentive to write software for a device they own and care about.
As YCombinator’s Paul Graham points out in a recent essay, one of the main reasons there are so many iPhone apps is because many coder-/geek-types own an iPhone, and want to make software they can use themselves.
And they can’t just run out and buy a Palm Pre or Droid on a whim because they are under an expensive AT&T contract.
But if they could buy a no-contract, wi-fi only, iPod-touch like device running Android or WebOS, there would be one fewer barrier to entry for writing software for the device. (And it would allow small developer shops to buy several of them, the way small iPhone developer shops tend to have a few iPod touches laying around.)
The result could be larger markets with more interested developers, and therefore more, better apps. That’s good news for everyone.
The biggest challenge is that an iPod touch-like device from Palm or one of Google’s hardware partners would probably not be as good as an iPod touch, which could limit sales.
Even if one of them could equal the iPod’s hardware quality — good luck — it would be tricky to equal its software quality or sales pitch. That’s because neither Google nor Palm has anything like the iTunes ecosystem that Apple has, both in the quality of desktop sync software, and the availability of super-convenient music and video downloads.
And neither has the iPod brand or Apple’s marketing savvy.
But with decent sync software, support for some things Apple’s gadgets can’t do — like stream Hulu videos — and enough good third-party apps, they could come closer. And maybe sell enough gadgets to get the ball rolling. (Microsoft’s Zune HD, for instance, has good reviews, but no open app platform — an entirely different problem.)
Either way, it’s an opportunity they can’t pass up for much longer. Even if, at first, it’s just a small-time, direct-sales-only gadget designed for developers and other geeks. (Or perhaps, at least, a developer program where phones are available, but don’t have wireless contract requirements.)