So you’ve got an idea for an app? For those aspiring to occupy a small portion of digital real estate in the pockets of countless smartphone users, this is an important step. But before the first line of code can be written or the IPO is filled, there is another equally important consideration which must be made. “Which platform do I develop for?” While the answer seems fairly obvious to those of us who frequent this particular online destination, the decision to develop for one platform over another can weigh on more than just your heartstrings. So why do developers choose Android?
Android has enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top in its short lifespan, and it is no secret that it currently dominates the mobile market in number of active users. Its market share now hovers around 80% globally with Apple left holding a remaining 13% slice of the smartphone pie. BlackBerry, the once reigning king, and Windows Phone are merely the crumbs. There are also no signs of slowing down for Google’s mobile platform as it currently reaches 1.5 million daily activations. Such rapid growth has also helped Android reach the impressive milestone of 1 billion device activations.
For any developer looking to maximize their potential users, regardless of language or country, Android is an obvious choice. It is evident that developers have been making that choice too. As its market share has steadily risen since being introduced in 2008, so have the number of available apps. While actual numbers vary widely by source, Android and iOS seem to be neck and neck in total number of apps available-just around 900,000 each. We can also expect an impressive (however inflated) update from Google in the coming weeks with the impending announcement of a new Nexus device or devices in conjunction with Android 4.4 KitKat. Those who may want to jump ahead a little and fact check are free to reference AppBrain’s daily statistics, which have the Google Play store measured at 875,462 apps as of this writing.
While developer interest can be gleaned in part from the numbers alone, there is still more that has contributed to the staggering number of applications now available for our favorite mobile platform.
A little-remembered fact is that the original iPhone did not launch with an app store in 2007. However, developer interest in creating native apps was apparent and the “first” mobile app store launched on the iPhone 3G in July, 2008 carrying with it around 500 applications. Apple’s heavy oversight of its App Store was criticized from the beginning, paving the way for how developers would receive Google’s own offering later that year. When the T-Mobile G1 launched on October 22, 2008 it boasted only a handful of apps compared to the iPhone’s nearly 7,500.
Android however, won praise early on for it openness. Supported at least in spirit by launch partner T-Mobile, the open nature of the Android platform helped position it as the anti-Apple. While both platforms grew steadily, the iPhone quickly became associated with a higher cost to consumers. Apple’s App Store boasted numbers and it also came with a price of $0.99 and above for the majority of applications. Combine this with devices costing upwards of $400 for a larger storage option and the iPhone’s exclusive availability on AT&T-not the cheapest carrier overall-Android, with its smaller but mostly free Android Market and more competitively priced availability, quickly made it stand out as the Robin Hood in the Sherwood Forest of smartphones.
Most developers by their nature, like to tinker. Android early on, offered many potential “problems” in need of solutions. One of Android’s obvious differences has been it’s lack of exclusivity to one device. The operating system is designed to be free and open; Able to be used on a wide range of hardware with varying screen sizes and button arrangements. Not only does this allow hardware manufacturers to adapt the software more specifically to their device, it also presents a challenge to (hackers or) developers who may disagree with some of these changes or have ideas of their own.
Android started as a frontier for developers to dig deeper. The OS allows for greater access and customization which has spawned whole new categories of apps. Don’t like the keyboard that shipped on your device, or need a better calendar widget to go on your homescreen? Even the homescreen itself, or launcher, is essentially an app which can be replaced with one of the many innovative options from the Play Store. This “personalization” category (the 2nd most popular) accounts for just under 90,000 of the Play Store’s total applications and boasts the highest number of paid apps-giving some insight into just how healthy the user demand is for these types of applications. Widgets, live wallpapers, launchers and icon packs have long been favorites of the more capable users and have been a major differentiator for Android in general from its beginning.
Android also allows for a greater level of integration, both between separate applications and with the OS itself. Consider tapping a camera icon within one app to add a photo and being presented with all the camera apps on your device to take a picture, or having the ability to browse a third party file manager when adding attachments to Gmail.
These choices can be more limited on other platforms such as iOS, where sharing options are hard coded and tied to the operating system (and licensing agreements). Apple requires all applications to run in what they call a “sandbox”, which limits access to other apps and most parts of the OS. This essentially comes down to a differing philosophical perspective, that limiting applications’ access to a specified set of permissions across the entire OS, makes for a more secure experience. Android handles this particular security concern by informing users of the types of permissions each application has access to before installing or upgrading ultimately giving more choices to the user and the developer.
Google’s own apps and services are another great example of where Android really shines. Google Location Services for example, can allow applications to display and find maps, navigation and other data that can be deeply integrated into your own apps. Google cloud messaging is a service that can be leveraged by developers to deliver push notifications to a device while allowing their app to remain power efficient by not continually running in the background. And Google App Engine provides a fully functional cloud computing platform with certain levels of access starting at the low low price of free. App Engine can be used by developers to enlist greater processing power and free up on-device resources. Google continues to iterate and advance its ecosystem and all this offers greater incentives to attract developers to the Android platform.
For the novice, the entry point for development on Android is simple and welcoming. Those who are familiar with iOS and have likely paid the $99 annual enrolment fee, might be surprised at the $25 one-time registration fee for Google Play. From there, developers have have complete control over distribution with options that allow them to target specific devices, carriers, languages and countries. Newly published apps on Google Play are also available almost instantly, due primarily to Google’s automated approval process. There is of course still a bit of the honor system in play here in regards to publishing content that is or is not allowed, but for stability and security, Google is able scan an application and approve it within a matter of hours rather than weeks as with iOS. However, algorithms aren’t the only line of defense in protecting users from “bad” applications, as Google has been known to regularly remove apps that violate Play Store terms and conditions.
In today’s mobile consumer environment, the best possible chance for developers to win widespread adoption of their app/apps is to utilize a two platform strategy. Market share in the United States is more equally split between iOS and Android. While Android still takes the top spot, its lead is far less dramatic. Apple remains the dominant handset vendor with just over 40% of U.S. smartphone subscribers. While Android takes the top platform, its distribution on a wide range of devices makes it more of a utility than a brand and therefore leaves it lagging in mindshare behind its brushed aluminum rival. Despite this fact, Android’s position as the dominant mobile platform is a testament to its ease of access to developers and users. For those who desire a greater level of control over their apps and devices, a better option cannot be found. Whether you aspire to mainstream success with the likes of Snapchat, Vine or Candy Crush Saga, or identify more closely with underground successes of Beautiful Widgets and DashClock, it is likely that Android offers whatever it is your are looking for.