The iPhone OS is the clear favorite smartphone platform for developers, according to Ovum’s first mobile application developer survey. While all five major smartphone platforms score well, it is BlackBerry OS and Windows Mobile that currently lead the opposition, rather than Android or Symbian.

Overall, Java ME remains the leading mobile development environment, showing there’s still life — if not necessarily big profits — in an old and rather neglected technology. Ovum’s 2010 survey of 217 mobile application developers exposes a wide range of important trends that are either already having or will have a profound bearing on the future of device manufacturers, mobile operators, software platform vendors, and content providers.

Among the most pertinent is the varying degree of support for different mobile device operating systems and associated developer environments — whether mobile-specific or web-oriented. Among smartphone platforms, iPhone OS garnered most support, with 81% of our sample either already developing for the platform or planning to do so.

This result is to be expected — Apple has stolen most of the smartphone praise in the past two years and currently boasts 185,000-plus applications in its Apple App Store, through which more than three billion applications have been downloaded. The commercial case for developing on iPhone is therefore largely proven.

More surprising is that overall RIM’s BlackBerry OS and Microsoft’s Windows Phone OS (formerly Windows Mobile) proved more popular with our sample than either Google’s Android OS or smartphone pioneer Symbian’s OS, attracting 74% and 66% of Ovum’s sample, respectively.

These results will be most gratifying for RIM, which appears to have successfully made the transition from enterprise-centric applications and can now be considered mainstream.
Overall, they’re also good news for Microsoft as it embarks on a new era with Windows Phone OS version 7.0. This support for Microsoft smartphones is, according to Ovum, reflective of the company’s eminence as a tools vendor, if not necessarily the user friendliness of its device platform. Quality of tools repeatedly came out among the chief criteria for developers when selecting which platforms to work with.

Android’s relative underperformance — though just trailing BlackBerry on 64% — may be excused by the relatively small installed based of the platform, according to the folks at Ovum. This is unsurprising given that it is the most recent of the major smartphone OSs to hit the market, the add.

However, this is far from true for Symbian, which finished in fifth place in the affections of the Ovum sample, though still with a reasonably healthy 56% of Ovum’s sample developing for the platform. This result comes despite the Nokia-championed platform commanding the highest shipments and largest installed base of all smartphone platforms.

In Ovum’s view, Symbian’s relative failure reflects the perceived (if not actual) lack of development in the platform of late while Nokia migrates to the fully open source version. A failure of original equipment manufacturers to offer devices that regularly appeal to the consumer has not helped either, at a time when its competitors are doing just that. Whether Symbian can regain its developer poise will depend on how well Symbian 3 devices are received once they reach the market later in 2010.

Symbian does, at least, continue to command a following among developers and keeps Nokia in the game. Less well-supported platforms such as LiMo and Palm’s WebOS are struggling for developer acceptance, as well as consumer acceptance, says Ovum. Lack of application support is a sure-fire way of putting off consumers. Only 30% of developers said they will support any other platform outside the top five.

What is clear, however, is that while smartphone development can now be considered mainstream, the real “bread and butter” of the developer’s trade still lies in the mid market and cross-platform development, according to Ovum. The top three mobile application platforms indicated in the survey were, in order: Java ME, mobile browsers, and full web browsers. Each of these environments is being targeted by more than 80% of the Ovum sample. Qualcomm’s BREW and Adobe’s Flash weren’t far behind.

Ovum ( is an organization that “provides clients with independent and objective analysis that enables them to make better business and technology decisions.” Their research is based on independently audited methodologies.