Where's the iPod Touch?

Why is there still no Android / Windows Phone / WebOS / QNX version of the iPod Touch? A smart-phone sized device roughly equivalent to the current top-of-the-line phone, but without the phone. (And, crucially, without the monthly data contract that goes along with it). One that runs most of the same apps as the phones and gives you much the same experience as the phones.

Apple has had an entry-level iOS device for years, which I'm sure has introduced many users and developers alike to the platform. I got my start writing iPhone apps because of an iPod Touch that I got in the summer of 2008. I'm now a small, independent mobile app developer and would love to write software for all these platforms. However, my budget does not justify five monthly data plans. I can't be the only one in this position.

Having a device is critical for two reasons. First, you need to test an app on real hardware before releasing it to users. The simulators / emulators are great for a quick code-build-test loop when doing major feature work, but nothing can replace actual hardware to test the performance and feel of an app. (Plus, the simulators and emulators can have bugs and different behavior from the devices too.)

The more subtle reason is that you really need to experience a platform before you can write software for it. Different mobile platforms have different UI paradigms, user expectations, different customs and beliefs. You don't know how to use the Android menu buttons, or the Windows Phone 7 tile patterns, or whatever it is that QNX has. Much the same as porting desktop apps between Windows and Mac OS X, you can easily tell when an app written for one platform has been ported straight across to another without really absorbing the UI paradigms of the new platform. It doesn't feel right and the user experience is almost always bad.

To really get a feel for a new platform, you have to use it -- see what the platform vendor and other third-party developers are doing. See how the platform works first hand. You can't get those kinds of experiences from the simulator running on your desktop. Which brings me back to: where are the entry-level contract-less devices? If I could buy a sub-$300 device that ran Windows Phone 7 (or WebOS, or..) with the bulk of its features and apps, I would buy it in a heartbeat. And then I would be able to tinker with creating software for it. I'm smaller than most software development houses, who could likely afford to buy a handful of devices and the carrier contracts that go along with them before eating breakfast in the morning. But a lot of great apps have come from small independent developers who would think twice before doing this.

It's possible that hardware manufacturers don't see much profit in these devices. Indeed, looking at Apple's numbers, the total iPod market is much smaller than the iPhone market, and Tim Cook says that the iPod Touch is only about half of total iPod sales. Maybe HTC and Nokia look at those numbers and decide to pass. (Their profits would likely be even less than Apple's due to Apple's volume purchase agreements with component vendors.) But even if the hardware manufacturers don't see much/any profit in producing these devices, it should be in the platform vendors' interest that they exist. Couldn't Microsoft or Google give some incentive to HTC to produce such a device? And for HP and RIM who control their entire stack, couldn't they do it as a loss-leader for the platform? (Especially HP and RIM, who are having trouble getting developer adoption on their platforms.)

We're starting to see tablets from various manufacturers running various operating systems that don't require a carrier contract. They're not really competitive with the iPad yet, but they're getting there. Wouldn't it be nice to see smaller handheld devices that could compete with the iPod touch?

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