While Apple faces criticism for appearing to penalise iPhone users who download third-party applications, Apple competitors are stepping up their marketing efforts about how open their phones are.
Nokia this week launched a new website highlighting the openness of its phones. "We believe the best devices have no limits. That's why we've left the Nokia NSeries open. Open to applications. Open to Widgets. Open to anything," the main page of the new site reads.
Nokia's smartphones run the Symbian operating system, and the company cultivates a developer community that creates applications for the phones.
Microsoft has a similar strategy with Windows Mobile. "We think the best approach is to create a sound platform and allow partners to extend that platform," said Scott Rockfeld, group marketing manager for Microsoft's mobile communications business. He said about 18,000 applications have been built for Windows Mobile.
Even Research In Motion in recent years has made strides to enable application development for its BlackBerry phones.
Apple, however, took a very different strategy when it decided to launch the iPhone with a closed platform that only allows third-party development through the Safari browser on the phone.
Last week, Apple released an update for the phone and warned in advance that users who make unauthorised changes to the software on their phones, including unlocking techniques, void their warranties. Some iPhone users who had downloaded third-party software applications, against the instructions of Apple, found that those applications were wiped away when they installed the update. They posted complaints online about the effects of the update. Others, not necessarily affected, chimed in with criticisms about the update.
The incident opened the door for iPhone competitors to talk about their platforms. It's surprising that companies such as Nokia and Microsoft haven't made more of the fact that they allow third-party development, said Avi Greengart, an analyst at Current Analysis. "There's been a lot of talk about feature parity or whether it has 3G, but there hasn't been nearly as much focus on extensibility or lack thereof," he said.
That could be because it's difficult to point to broadly popular third-party applications on any of the other platforms, he said. "The mobile applications landscape is extraordinarily fragmented," he said.
Also, it may be hard to point to the iPhone's shortcomings in the face of its success. The lack of third-party development probably hasn't slowed down sales of the iPhone, he said. Also, since more than a million people have iPhones, the percentage of them who are actually hacking the phone and who want to is relatively small, he said.
Apple is likely to open up its platform to development in the future, but probably wanted to start out with a closed environment to help ensure its stability, Greengart said.
It may not be a good idea to wait for Apple to open up its development environment, because it might not fit with Apple's strategy, said Craig Mathias, an analyst at Farpoint Group. "Apple is not horribly interested in building a general-purpose device capable of being a computer, today," he said.
However, Apple is well-positioned to make more applications available through its current web-hosted approach, if it chooses to do so, and others may follow, he said.
"Apple's at the forefront of a trend that will dominate the industry," he said.