I was lucky enough to be invited into the Magento Mobile introductory Webinar which was very interesting and very well put together. The content will shortly be available on the Magento website.

So, what is this mobile commerce, or mCommerce to the cool kids, all about? Well for starters mCommerce sales already account for $2.5 billion per year and this is projected to rise to around $24 billion per year within the next 5 years which would lead it to account for almost 10% of all eCommerce sales. With this sort of sales volume it is not just the big players that should take mCommerce seriously. M Commerce for us is firstly iPhone application development, followed by android application development.

Obviously the next question for someone thinking about this is how to get this whole mCommerce thing happening. There are a couple of routes and some pretty big pros and cons here. The biggest difficulty with the mobile world is what us geeks call fragmentation. This is that there are several different platforms, all of which operate differently and even use totally different operating systems.

There are two ways that mCommerce can operate. The first is as a website which is presented differently to mobile devices. This has the advantage that one solution can be accessed on all devices but there are some performance and user-interface sacrifices. At face value the native app (for example iPhone/Android app development) just works better in terms of giving a high quality experience. However, the native approute means development costs are much higher and development must be done separately for each device. However, if the initial cost hurdle can be overcome the high quality result can give excellent results. Oasis, for example, reported to break even on their app after only one month.

In terms of the different platforms there are currently:

iPhone (and now iPad; it isn’t a phone so is it just a Smart?) – The daddy of the mobile app world. There had been a bunch of smart phones before the iPhone that had supported third party applications but it was Apple’s App Store that first got peoples attention in a big way. Ironically, Apple were against this idea first and wanted everything to be web based originally. There are currently something like 200,000iPhone apps and there have been over 2 billion downloads from the App Store.

Android – This is the newer open source operating system from Google. There are a very large number of handsets from numerous manufactures from Sony-Erickson, through Samsung to Dell. Android is built on Java which is a language with a fairly large developer community already. Also, Android is pretty flexible so all sorts of different things can be done with Android apps. In the first quarter of 2010 moreAndroid handsets were sold in the US than iPhones and Android shows the fasted rate of growth in uptake of any smart phone OS. However, this is just before iPhone 4 was released so time may tell that this is a little artificial in what it means.

Blackberry – The Blackberry is still the mainstay of corporate types. To now, Blackberry apps have been pretty poor and performance is quite variable. However, RIM (the makers of Blackberry) have recently released a new App World and developer tool set so this is likely to change. In many countries the Blackberry is the most popular smart phone type by a large margin so if the apps could be made to behave there is a big market out there.

Symbian + Maemo – These are two smart phone OS’s with daft names (not that the others are much better) from Nokia. Around the world there are more Symbian smart phones that any other type of smart phone device. At the moment there are some major delivery and consistency issues with Symbian apps and the handsets are fairly low end. Maemo is newer and is based on Linux. I think it is too early to tell if Maemo will take off but from a developer’s point of view apps for both Symbian and Maemo can be built with the same tool.

Windows Mobile (and Windows Phone 7) – Microsoft were a very early provider of smart phones. There are a fairly large number of business oriented Windows mobile apps but not so many casual apps. Windows Phone 7 may see this change (I personally think it will anyway). Windows Phone 7 uses Silverlight for the simple user interface stuff which is a fairly straight forward thing to use and has some developers already. For games etc XNA studio is used which is the same as for the XBox so again a developer community already exists. Knowing Microsoft Windows phone 7 will be a successful mobile platform and I think it will take off but you never know.

Palm WebOS – Poor Palm, they had the next big thing, it was a revolutionary system. Beautiful to use and easy to develop for. Unfortunately no-one bought one though so they folded. HP bought up Palm so we don’t know yet what will happen so this one is a bit of a watch this space.

Samsung Bada – This is a relatively new mobile OS that lives on the Samsung Wave 2. It is quite a nice OS but for app developers we need to know that there will be a decent sized audience before we start committing resources to the system. There is however a pretty large developer challenge with some nice juicy prizes up for grabs and Samsung are pushing hard to make their new mobile OS stick so this is another wait and see.

So, all together we have eight separate mobile OS’s to look at for native mobile apps. At the moment you would consider iPhone first but also iPad and Android. Blackberry and Windows mobile (maybe just Phone 7 though as it is coming soon) are a pretty safe bet and plausible for app development. The others really need to prove themselves but all have an audience so if you are Facebook or someone similar and want to target absolutely everyone they are worth considering. Equally if you wish to target a certain country then they are worth looking at. For example China is almost exclusively Symbian.

Ok, so we have looked at what mCommerce is, whether it is best to go for a mobile website or a native mobile app but there is a middle way. This is not something that really works well yet but does offer a compromise. I will not go in to too much detail but essentially a transferable web-based core is embedded into a device specific wrapper. A few platforms exist with PhoneGap being my favourite (it’s free and I’m tight) but you can tell where the web content exists which to me is a fail most of the time. It is a bit like the old Geo-cities sites in the rickety way they sometimes work and for a commercial product I don’t think it is good enough (yet). I think that for most companies a mobile app is the best bet at the moment. They are a bit expensive but an ROI is pretty much guaranteed. There is still a great PR buzz around them so just the publicity will usually make it worth it. The important thing is too look at how your customers are likely to want to interact with your business on a mobile device. If themobile application is the product (in the case of a game) the return can be highest but so is the risk. Whatever your business though there is sure to be an app for that .

As a foot note we are a mobile application development company as well as a web design company and we can offer development on all platforms as well as strategy / consultancy. See our main site for info or contact detail and have a read aboutiPhone/Android apps in particular (we can do others it is just these seem to be the most popular).