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This week, a little known trade show called Mobile World Congress has been taking place in Barcelona, and it's given the mobile games industry a lot to think about. One of the big questions for handset manufacturers this year has been: How do we answer the App Store?
Love it or hate it, the App Store, and by extension the iPhone and the iPod Touch, have dominated mobile gaming for the last eighteen months. The rise of Apple as the dominant force in mobile gaming has been aggressive and unexpected.
A true example of disruptive technology, the arrival of the App Store offered a new option for disgruntled developers who had long since grown tired of carrier-specific content delivery portals (which marginalized their audiences) and device fragmentation (which made their testing processes a living nightmare).
Bearing that in mind, it's easy to see why developers flocked to the App Store with its lack of fragmentation and single unified delivery channel.
That success is not guaranteed indefinitely, however, and as the rest of the mobile smartphone market begins to catch up, it's increasingly likely that Apple won't be able to hog the largest, most visible chunk of the mobile games market for long.
So who are the contenders? Well, the first and most obvious is Android. Google's mobile OS had a very strong showing at this week's Mobile World Congress, with Sony Ericsson, Motorola, and HTC debuting impressive new Android powered hardware, with specifications that make the iPhone 3GS hardware look as limp as a microwaved lettuce leaf.
With its overall smartphone market share doubling to 5 percent last year, Google's OS is building the kind of momentum that's hard to ignore, and the time is ripe for a seamlessly integrated gaming service that joins the dots.
Device fragmentation could still potentially be an issue, but if Google created a cross-device gaming environment with some judiciously set benchmarks (as well as sensible limits to ensure developers optimize titles within strict operational limits), the handset manufacturers would surely follow suit.
Interestingly, Nokia already tried this with the second launch of its ill-fated N-Gage service, and though it lacked the developer support and marketing push it needed to succeed, its technical ambitions were sound.
Moving on, another potentially huge competitor is Microsoft. A veteran in the smartphone business, Microsoft is not taking Apple's successful three year stint with the iPhone lying down, and last week it unveiled the extremely impressive looking Windows Mobile 7.
With a graphically lush UI and a marketplace for games and apps that's hardwired to the system OS, there's some much justified buzz around Windows Mobile 7. Top App Store developers such as Firemint have already been thoroughly lured.
Incidentally, the new interface shares some design consistency with the Zune HD and its large bold fonts - are you thinking what we're thinking?
Indeed, on that note, just to complicate matters, besides its new Android powered X10 line, Sony Ericsson also announced the future availability of PSN on its mobile phones. Details are currently scarce, but the prospect of even a sliver of the PSN's extensive back catalogue making onto mobiles is a potentially huge deal (Fat Princess on the go, anyone?).
The smartphone industry has learned a lot over the last three years, and though Apple has merrily carried things forward with the iPhone and the App Store, it may also have unwittingly laid the groundwork for its competitors. Let's hope so, because competition is good for the industry and until the App Store is challenged by a decent competing mobile games service the mobile games industry will remain dangerously lop-sided.
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