Will Google’s improvements to Android hurt the app ecosystem?

November 14, 2012
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Android 4.1 Jelly BeanThe Android platform has really improved a lot in the four years it has been on the market. We’ve had a fattening feast of Cupcake, Donut, Éclair, Froyo, Gingerbread, Honeycomb, Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean. Key Lime Pie is tantalizingly on the horizon if you’re still hungry. Through these iterations the platform we’ve fallen in love with has grown from a pretty bare bones affair into a smooth and elegant operating system that is unparalleled in the smartphone market.

As it has evolved we’ve seen subtle tweaks to the interface and a vast improvements to stability and speed, but it’s the new roll call of features in each release that gets people really excited. From widgets and auto-rotation in Cupcake through to expandable notifications and offline voice dictation in Jelly Bean, the features have been pouring in thick and fast.

It’s great for Android users. We all want a better experience. We all like it when our smartphones do more straight out of the box, but where does the inspiration come from? How does Google decide what’s next to be baked into the platform? How often have you come to rely on an app developed by a third-party that is made obsolete overnight by a new version of the Android platform?

Developer pain

Have you ever wondered how it feels to be the developer of an app that offers exciting new functionality for Android users and then to have the rug pulled from under your feet? It’s a real knife edge because you want to develop an app that everyone will use, an app that improves the Android platform, and yet, if you’re too successful, you might end up out in the cold because Google decides to make your app functionality part of the core experience.

It’s not just Google either. In the early days of Android especially, developers had to compete with manufacturers and carriers. Smartphones would come preloaded with apps that the manufacturer and carrier had pushed on there. They still do. When it comes to utilities like a flashlight app, an alarm clock or a quick settings widget, there’s simply no need for users to download an app anymore.

Lock screen notifications, alternative keyboards, camera and photo editing options, better text message and email support, an improved browser, support for more audio and video formats, the list goes on and on. Every time an improvement is made to the core Android platform there must be a developer somewhere out there cursing the imminent demise of an app.

It’s just not fair

Business is business and software development is never without risk. The situation does seem to be pretty harsh in the Android space, though. We hear about Google acquiring and shuttering companies all the time. It’s something Microsoft has done for years. They see some functionality that looks good, that could compete on some level with their software suite, and so they acquire the company, kill the product and assimilate the staff to either roll the same functionality into their software or to quietly disappear.

For Android developers they don’t bother to acquire the company. There’s no pay day in recognition of the great app they created because they’re already working on Google’s platform. Google can just cherry pick popular ideas based on success in the app ecosystem and copy paste the same functionality into the core platform. There’s no such thing as a courtesy call to let the developers know what they’re working on is about to become obsolete. That app they slaved over is simply dead overnight. So long and thanks for the ideas and market research.

Is it bad for the ecosystem?

Is it possible that Google’s improvements to Android could actually hurt the app ecosystem? Will developers be turned off from creating specific apps because of the risk that they will be obsolete in a few months or weeks? It doesn’t seem likely; after all there are a few counter points to consider.

For a start the developers have to cash in while they can. That’s the good old capitalist spirit at work. Get something out the door and sell, sell, sell before someone else copies you or the demand dwindles. Every successful app in the ecosystem already has instant competition in the form of cloners. There are plenty of developers out there and big name game publishers, just waiting to emulate the success of your release with a cheap knock-off, or sometimes an expensive knock-off. You either do it better than the next guy or you move on to the next thing.

We also need to consider fragmentation. Just because a new version of the platform comes out, that doesn’t mean everyone will get to enjoy those new features. There are plenty of people still rocking smartphones with Froyo. The demand for those apps that offer functionality should only drop off gradually over time as more and more people update to newer Android releases.

Android Version Distribution

It’s tough to argue that it’s a good thing for developers, but if you’re hesitant to exploit a great idea because you fear someone else is potentially going to do it, then maybe you’re in the wrong business. If any developers would care to comment it would be great to hear your opinion.

Nostalgia for apps lost in the mist of time

We’ve probably all used Android apps that have fallen by the wayside as the platform has improved. Some developers have worked on keeping their apps relevant with new functionality, some apps continue to be popular on older versions of the platform, and some apps have been abandoned. The list of apps I no longer feel the need for includes classics like Handcent, Quick Settings, Advanced Task Manager, Pano, and Screenshot ER.

How about you? Let’s salute those brave pioneers as we remember our essential apps from yesteryear. What are the apps you had installed on earlier versions of Android that drew you in with specific functions that the platform now covers? Which apps went from your essential list to obsolete? Post and share.

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