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December 03, 2013

Device API Usage and Trends
byMark WilcoxinAPIs

In the early stages of new technology markets, a lot of services are created because new technology has made new ways of doing things possible. [tweetable]Where app developers go, apps and then users will follow[/tweetable]. By looking at the popularity of various device APIs across platforms, we can see which developers are making the most of the capabilities their devices offer. If we then look at the device APIs that developers say they plan to adopt, we can see future trends in the app market, possibly months before the apps start to appear. Would it be wise to move against the herd, or is the trend really your friend?

Distinctively mobile computing

Mobile computing devices enable a greater range of applications than their desktop counterparts purely by being mobile. There are also features that are unique to, or much more relevant on mobile devices. In our last survey we asked developers about their plans for and usage of device APIs related to these features to gauge how much different groups of developers are taking advantage of mobility. The device APIs we asked about in our survey were those available to HTML5 developers, which allows us to compare their usage versus native developers across the most popular platforms.

Rather unsurprisingly, it turns out that HTML5 developers make less use of almost all device APIs than native developers. A lot of web developers are targeting desktop as well as mobile platforms and as such are less likely to build functionality that relies on mobile device specific APIs. However, that does seem to be changing as HTML5 developers are among the most likely to say they’re planning to use the majority of device APIs. You can see the popularity of each of the APIs covered in our survey by primary platform in the interactive chart below.

Another point to note about almost all of the APIs surveyed is that a greater proportion of iOS and Android developers use them than for other platforms. This suggests some maturity factor for platforms, either through increased competition causing developers to seek out more mobile-specific niches, or more likely, developers becoming more creative with ways to enhance their apps with mobile features over time.

Peering into the future

The differences between what developers are currently using and what they plan to use allows us a glimpse at future trends. Some of them are obvious, like the increase in intent to use the video camera. Video has long been more engaging for users but making effective use of local capturing and uploading relies on high bandwidth mobile uploads, which 4G connections provide. This trend is already preceded by mainstream services like Twitter’s Vine and video features for Instagram and Pinterest. For web developers, WebRTC offers the promise of easily integrated video chat in any site.

Voice recognition is another area where the trend is expected. The technology is maturing and the platform providers are investing heavily. It’s interesting that Windows Phone has the highest fraction of current usage here and the highest planned usage by a fairly wide margin. Perhaps there is some very effective developer marketing for the relevant APIs going on here?

Other APIs on the rise are less obvious, particularly the increase in interest in proximity sensors – the sensor normally used to detect whether you’ve got the phone held to your ear! It’ll be interesting to see what other creative uses developers put this to, or if it has been mistaken for technologies like NFC and Apple’s iBeacons. Sharing and Pairing is another less obvious candidate – as we didn’t specify exact technology here, it’s safe to say interest in various forms of social sharing from apps is unlikely to decline anytime soon and local sharing options such as Apple’s new AirDrop feature are likely to be popular.

User needs trump technical possibility

Given that Apple and Google (Motorola) have added special hardware for motion sensing, it’s not surprising that there’s a resurgence of interest in this type of API. Lets hope this time we get more creative uses like Magic Plan and not just a lot more motion controlled games and fitness trackers. For those looking where to take their app business, it might not be wise to follow any of these trends. Where lots of developers are exploring (and we do all love to explore new technology) there will be a lot of competition, yet the more general transition to mobile computing is still in the early stages. There are probably much more lucrative opportunities in slightly less exciting corners of the market.


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