Loyalty to (or Investment in) Apple App Store Makes Switch from iPhone Tough

The G1 with Google and Palm Pre devices and carriers are enticing, but a big time and money investment in Apple App Store makes moving to a new platform difficult to justify, especially as vendors run out of ways to differentiate the actual devices.

This month marks my 10th anniversary with the cell phone, as I acquired my first Nokia to help while away the hours spent sitting in traffic on my way to and from my then-new job at PC Magazine. In the years since, I've been a dutiful little consumer (sheep?), obligingly updating my phone every two years as my boredom with the previous device grew too immense to ignore any longer.

Certainly my demands on a mobile phone have evolved over time as the need for mobile voice services was supplanted by text messaging, then Web access, rich media playback, and now gaming and location-based services.

My current phone, a first-generation iPhone, is the first device I haven't gotten bored with after two years. Apple's reinvention of the smartphone into a fully realized and rich application platform has kept my interest alive-I can constantly reinvent the device, even if I have grown weary of the phone's declining battery and pokey WAN connection.

Although it didn't seem that way at the time, I've stuck essentially with the same carrier throughout the decade: In the end, PacBell Wireless, the old AT&T, Cingular and the new AT&T all wound up as one-in-the-same company. But after a decade run within the AT&T fold, I have found myself increasingly frustrated with my voice service-or lack thereof-in the places I spend the most time. Despite my ongoing fondness for the iPhone, I was again ready to move-or so I thought.

For my particular mix of needs and likes, I find the T-Mobile G1 with Google and the new Palm Pre, which I've just evaluated, the best alternatives to the iPhone. The Pre gets a plus because I know Sprint works well in both my house and office, while Google Android gets a leg up because it has a more diverse and active developer community. (Palm's community is a big question mark at the moment.)

But I find Apple's App Store is holding me back from making the switch to either smartphone, as I have already sunk a decent amount of cash into a wide mix of mobile applications for both work and play. With the G1, I know I can replicate the functions of many of the apps I use on a day-to-day basis with the iPhone, and maybe I'd be willing to start from scratch if the apps were free, but I don't relish the thought of buying them all over again.

And this, in short, is why it has become so important for mobile operating system makers to develop their own take on Apple's App Store. Hardware devices are going to zero out when compared head-to-head and feature-for-feature, as each covers largely the same tired ground. But by making it easier to find, purchase and maintain new applications, vendors have a better shot at helping customers extract more utility from their existing device, which in turn will help keep them in the respective fold.

Indeed, Apple's already taking things to the next level with the next-generation iPhone OS, going beyond one-time payments to create a system where ISVs can generate additional ongoing revenue from periodic subscriptions or by unlocking new features as they are developed. Users get more, pay more and are, in essence, more locked in. I guess I am already there.

So, despite my ongoing concerns about AT&T's coverage, I find myself staring at a completed online pre-order form for the iPhone GS. Sure, if the iPhone were available today on Verizon, I'd be gone from AT&T in a heartbeat. But that possibility remains more than a year away. In the meantime, I find myself ready to not only stay with AT&T-to continue utilizing those applications in which I've invested so much time and money-but also to actually pay AT&T more on a monthly basis for the privilege.

Call me a loyalist. Or maybe a sucker.

Senior Analyst Andrew Garcia can be reached at [email protected]