Beyond the Android afterthought

The allure of Apps is a potent weapon in the arsenal of any smart phone platform and while Apple iOS has had a head start in the space its rivals are maintaining their efforts to narrow the gap and in the case of Google Android, starting to catch up.

As the platform battle rages on, Android is picking up some healthy momentum with Android Market ticking past 11 billion app downloads this month and the latest survey from Ovum saying that Android has replaced Apple’s iOS in terms of importance to developers in the Asia-Pacific region.

According to Ovum’s second annual developer survey– Developer Insights 2011: Trends in Mobile Application Development – Android is poised to overthrow iOS as the platform of choice for developers within the next 12 months, with 29 per cent of developers aiming to adopt Android compared to the 27 per cent planning to adopt  iOS.

App developers are a critical cog in keeping any platform healthy. One of the core strengths of the iOS ecosystem is that it has consistently attracted the best and brightest developers to build apps that draw consumers to the App Store. With a growth rate of 1 billion downloads per month Android has made a lot of progress in 2011 and Ovum’s data does raise the question of whether the dominance of iOS in the app space is coming to an end.

Before we get to that question, let’s just look at what Android has going in its favour.  According to a recent report from Gartner, Android-based devices accounted for a whopping 52.5 per cent of global smartphone sales in the third quarter of 2011. That’s close to 60.5 million Android smartphones, almost triple the 20.5 million picked up by consumers a year earlier. Growth like that is hard to ignore and developers are warming to the notion that iOS isn’t the only game in town when it comes to making cash. 

However, that doesn’t necessary mean that they are falling out of love with iOS because when it comes to revenue Apple still rules the roost. US mobile analytics firm Distimo painted a pretty clear picture of this dominance in its year-end report for 2011, with the Apple App Store for iPad and the Apple App Store for iPhone beating the Google Android Market in terms of the total revenue generated by the 200 highest grossing apps. As it turns out the App store for iPhone generates about four times the revenue that is generated in the Android Market.

So, Google’s market share in the apps space and smartphones may be on the rise but its Android market doesn't make publishers nearly as much money as Apple does.  Just how big the gulf is can been seen in the research released in November last year by Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster, which showed that Apple developers made more than $US3.4 billion since 2011, compared with less than $US240 million for Google developers. 

In fact there are a couple of areas where Android still has plenty of catching up to do.  Fragmentation is still the biggest millstone around Google’s neck. Google boss Eric Schmidt may like to call it differentiation but the fact is nothing scares developers more than the prospect of working on a system that leaves itself open to tinkering by device vendors and can lead to app incompatibilities. Nobody wants a buggy app, not the consumers and certainly not the developers. On top of that the Android is yet to crack the “sticky” code because the ecosystem still doesn’t have what it takes to keep users glued to it. Apple is still miles ahead on that front and is not about to go easy anytime soon if the popularity and the buzz around Siri is any indication.

As far as established developers are concerned it’s still pretty hard to look past Apple’s methodology. 

According to Melbourne-based app development firm Outware Mobile’s founder Danny Gorog, Apple’s focus on user experience is a key factor to why it’s not going to lose the platform war to Android anytime soon and app developers generally opt to build first for iOS and then tend to think about an Android version.

“We don’t think Android has a strong design sense, so it’s pretty reasonable to build an iOS app and then import it to Android and you can have a similar look and feel,” Gorog says.

“We find the design generally works across both platforms and that can reduce costs.”

Gorog adds that Android is further hampered by Google's poor efforts at promoting the Android Market when compared to Apple.

That’s an area that Google will certainly need to address in 2012 given that developers are starting to pay attention to the Android platform, despite its deficiencies, and the fact that most developers are still using vendor-specific distribution channels – Android Market, the App Store – to reach out to consumers.

The tussle between Android and iOS is not going to be resolved anytime soon, if anything the latest from Ovum only reinforces the point that we might just be entering a phase where the game is heating up. Google needs to translate the rising consumer interest in Android devices into loyalty for its ecosystem and Apple certainly can’t rest on its laurels anymore, especially if Google gets its act together with a more standardised approach to app development, more glitz and glam around the Android Market and becomes a better money maker for developers.