A recurring debate in tablet and mobile hardware reviews is over the importance of the app. Every new platform, no matter how innovative, seems to instantly lose credibility since it can’t match the hundreds of thousands of apps of the incumbents. The supposed importance of the app even causes platform owners to do strange things, like make accusations of bias and fanboyism, or even emphasize the inclusion of Angry Birds (a game whose popularity I’ve never quite grasped) on a business-oriented platform. So, how important is the app, especially when it comes to a new or emerging platform?

The ever-present app

I started my computing experience at the tail end of the era of the ultimate closed ecosystem, when you purchased a computer and expected the manufacturer to provide an operating system, productivity software, and even development tools all in the same box. I can still recall the DOS commands to launch the “Leading Edge Word Processor” from the eponymous hardware company that was included on the mysterious and amazing beige PC clone my father purchased, and I learned the nuances of spaghetti code at the hands of Leading Edge’s GW-BASIC programming tools.

The proliferation of IBM PC clones eventually created a large enough market for widespread third-party apps (we called them “programs” back then), and this proliferation of apps arguably brought the PC platform — and eventually the Wintel alliance — to desktop dominance. Proponents of the PC and Windows platform have long cited the amazingly vast catalog of applications as a benefit of the platform, and that’s largely the reason a Wintel box remains my primary desktop workhorse.

Intimacy and the fart factor

Invariably during the app debate, someone will rightly point out that quantity doesn’t equate to quality on the app front, often bringing up the early proliferation of “fart” apps on the iPhone — that is, trivial applications that would simulate various unsavory bodily noises.

While it’s certainly true that a percentage of any platform’s application will be filled with trivial and generally useless apps, a larger catalog also indicates several approaches to the same problem, allowing a more deeply personalized mobile experience. I find I use my mobile devices more intimately than my desktop and laptop. The latter are dominated by productivity and business software, a web browser, and an occasional game or two. On my mobile devices, however, I track my weight and health, catch up on world news, communicate with friends and business associates, and record financial information like business and personal expenses. I’m also using my mobile devices on the run, so whereas I might place a premium on rich functionality on the desktop, on the mobile, speed and usability often trump raw computing power.

Chickens, eggs, and Apples

Usability is a personal matter and a difficult one to get right, so having multiple applications that attempt to solve the same problem becomes a benefit on a mobile device. This leads to an obvious problem that new devices will not hit the ground with a large app catalog, and reviewers who point out this fact might appear biased against the new platform and shills for the currently dominant force in applications: Apple’s iPhone and iPad. So, what’s a new entrant to the mobile field to do, when developers are understandably hesitant to throw scarce resources at yet another platform without seeing its market share, and consumers are unwilling to buy without an app catalog?

One potential strategy is wooing key app developers with cash “incentives” or easy conversion tools. I’d argue this is the more difficult approach, because as you’re acquiring those hundred or so “critical” applications, new ones are being developed for the entrenched platforms. An alternate strategy is borrowing from the PC Clone playbook, as Google’s Android has effectively done, and that’s offering a relatively low-cost platform that attracts developers through sheer scale.

The final strategy, one that’s harder to execute but is likely the most effective, is to offer a platform that’s so inherently superior that the application developers come to you. BlackBerry and Windows Mobile looked to be unbeatable platforms around 2003, with rich application catalogs and feature parity (on paper) with the soon-to-be-released iPhone. Apple created a product so sufficiently differentiated that customers flocked to the device.

With a sea of similar mobile OSs, a diverse app catalog becomes a dominant factor. If one platform is functionally similar to another, I’d go with the larger app catalog, since it allows me the most options to customize my device. However, if a manufacturer offers a differentiated and compelling platform, app count becomes less relevant. Rather than throwing cash at yet another Angry Birds port, it would be refreshing to see one of the new platforms put those resources into innovative hardware and game-changing functionality.