On Startups Competing with Core Mobile OS Apps


One thing that’s been on my mind lately is how (and whether) startups can compete with the stock applications that ship with Android and iOS devices. I’ve included a screenshot of my current homescreen – it changes fairly often, but this reflects the apps that I use fairly often today. As the image of m yhome screen shows, I’ve demoted a lot of of the stock apps that ship with iOS from my homescreen. In the case of calendar, maps, browser, and a few other categories, I’ve found 3rd party apps whose UI and functionality I prefer. That’s a good sign that those 3rd party apps have value to me, but that’s separate from what it means for the organizations behind those applications and their respective path to success.

Whether you’re talking about Android or iOS, I divide the core set of stock OS applications into two categories. On the one hand, we have applications that are fundamentally about core utility. On the other hand, there are those applications whose usage has strong elements of network effects or whose usage can be influenced by your friend / social circle’s choice of application. Some of these applications blur the lines, but I’ve tried to categorize them roughly below:

Utility Applications
– Calendar (Fantastical, Sunrise)
– Mail (Sparrow (acquired by Google), Mailbox, Gmail on iOS)
– To Do / Tasks (Astrid, Any.Do, Clear)
– Maps and Navigation (Waze, Google Maps on iOS)
– Browser (Google Chrome on iOS, Dolphin, Opera)

Competing with core utility apps is hard because the incumbents have two big advantages on startups.
First, they have built-in distribution for their stock apps. Every version of iOS and Android ships with a core set of applications in many (if not all) of the core utility categories and using those apps is the default for many folks. Second, and more importantly, the stock utility applications don’t need to have a business model around them as independent businesses. They don’t need to worry about funding user acquisition, covering operating expenses, or having enough revenue to support the next release.

That being said, the successful core utility applications that I use tend to cater to power users or people who really care about a given function. Power user of email? Maybe Mailbox or the Gmail client is a better fit for you than the stock Mail app. Have lots of calendars to track, including social ones? Maybe you’ll be happier with Fantastical or Sunrise. And the list goes on and on. There can be a business around meeting the needs of these users, but it can be harder unless you’re someone like Google who is leveraging its massive desktop / web user base to penetrate iOS. I’m curious to see how startups in this space are thinking about building businesses around their apps.

Social / Network Effects
– Photo (Instagram)
– Video (many)
– Messaging (MessageMe, Viber, WhatsApp, Textfree)

I suspect it will be easier to compete with stock OS apps where there is a strong social or network effect to using that application. I like iMessage on my iPhone, but it’s not particularly compelling when trying to chat with my friends who don’t have iPhones or iPads. Other apps, such as Viber and whatsApp, have cost advantages or flexibility advantages (they are cross-platform, work on Wi-Fi and cellular data networks, and can be cheaper or free when compared to text messaging rates). Others compete by giving users more features and functionality than the vanilla apps that ship with the popular OS variants.

As always, I welcome any comments below or on Twitter @chudson.

  • Doug Williams

    In an indirect way, you are posing the question on weather “average users” will adopt alternative apps and what will it take to get their attention. This is a worthwhile question especially given that Apple is bundling its web browser in a similar fashion as Microsoft, yet Microsoft continues to get fined by the EU and Apple isn’t (as yet). It’s clear that the iOS/Android requires standard apps of some sort, but the bigger question is how smaller organizations can get visibility through a standard channel (think of a use case of an adult/married mother in Omaha Nebraska). That’s the real market failure here for app makers. They can make better apps, but selling them (even if free) is tough.

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