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Summary:

While Apple still holds a strong lead in apps, there is an increasing number of cutting-edge, innovative mobile apps that are initially launching on Android before they go to iOS. It highlights the unique appeal of the Android open platform.

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Android has always had some apps that iOS didn’t, such as keyboard replacement software like Swype and SwiftKey. While Apple still holds a strong lead in apps, there is an increasing number of cutting-edge, innovative apps initially launching on Android before they go to iOS. It’s part of a larger build-up for Android Market, which is on pace to have more apps than Apple’s App Store later this year. But it highlights the unique appeal of the Android platform, which doesn’t make as much money for developers but is finding more interest from creative programmers, especially as hardware sales heat up.

In the last six months or so, I’ve seen — and been pitched on — a number of apps that consciously launched on Android first. Enterproid, Aro Mobile, ThruTu, Zazu, Contapps, Skifta, and RadioMe are just a few of the apps that bypassed iOS, and I’m sure there are many I’m missing. The growing interest from developers is due in part to the increasing success of Android phones, which are outselling iPhones (and every other platform, for that matter) and possibly the desire to simply target a space outside of Apple’s saturated App Store.

But a lot has to do with the advantages of the open platform of Android, which encourages more cutting-edge applications with a broader array of features in some cases. Apple’s limits on access to its hardware as well as its tougher review process also seems to be playing a role. It’s still easier to make money on iOS, and fragmentation is a headache for many Android developers, but for a growing number of developers, it makes more sense to start on Android first.

“You have more developers who love the openness of Google and don’t want to go through the iPhone funnel, they just want to create their own thing and get it out there,” said Lior Romano, the co-founder and CEO of Contapps, a contacts app. “Now with the growth of Android, the size of (Android Market) is now getting equal to Apple. If you develop free applications and want to get to scale and responses from users, Android is very inviting.”

Google has had a more open approach from the beginning, and that resulted in some innovative apps like home screen replacements and third-party browsers. But Lior said not all developers took advantage of the opportunity because the audience wasn’t there yet. But now, many are timing their apps to take advantage of their fast growth of the platform and are coming out with titles that make more use of some of Android’s architecture. Contapps, for example, offers a contact list replacement app that’s more visual, with gesture-based search, social integration and search and mapping built into the app.

Lior said building in Android offered more access to the core functions of the phone, the ability to integrate with more third-party APIs and good tools to build with. He said he was also worried about Apple stifling the app because it might be too close to the iOS native functions. “We want to be a one-stop shop for contacts and interaction; that’s a big goal and we need the openness of Android to undertake those possibilities,” Lior said. “With Android, you get a lot of access from Google and the opportunity to build something big, not something skin deep.”

That’s some of the allure of the Android platform. Developers can get deep into the guts of a device and build out a lot of apps that work with the existing the platform or simply replace its functionality. ThruTu, for example, allows users to send pictures, contacts, their location or a vibrating “prod” while in the middle of a voice conversation. Aro Mobile, which debuted first on Android, replaces the native contacts, email, search, phone and browser apps on a device with its own cloud-connected versions with semantic technology. Aro Mobile later launched on iOS, but because of the platform’s more restrictive nature, the app wasn’t able to fully replace existing functions. It has to work alongside them, undercutting some of its appeal. Other apps like ON, an address book app, also have had to be watered down to work on Apple’s platform.

Apple’s approach has been great forconsumers who are looking for very polished apps. And Apple’s control and sense of order has been part of why downloads have soared in the App Store. But it can be stifling for some developers looking to innovate in areas that Apple is less interested in, said Punit Shah, co-founder of Zazu, a personal assistant app that reads aloud news, social feeds, and emails, and is looking to help users plan for upcoming calendar events.

Shah said the Apple hardware is great, but he’s not able to do as much with it compared to Android. On Android, he gets easier access to dialer information and can incorporate contact lists from different sources without asking for additional authentications for each source. That has led to a more robust app, Shah said. Zazu recently completed an iPhone app, but there’s no guarantee that it will get approved. With Android, there’s no review process, so developers are assured they can launch on Android Market.

“As an entrepreneur, I want to make something new that’s ridiculous and provides value. But from a company perspective, it’s much harder to do that when you have too many variables where you can be shot down,” he said.

Andrew Toy, co-founder of Enterproid, an app that creates a partition between enterprise and personal data, said his company is open to all mobile platforms. But with Android’s growth in the past year, it now offers developers the ability to get traction with a sizable audience, which wasn’t the case early on. But he said his choice to launch on Android was also prompted by Apple’s review process, which can be a concern for some start-ups, as they must invest before they’re sure Apple will approve their apps. The review process for updates can also be harder for developers who like to iterate quickly and constantly test their apps, said Toy. And he said Android is more flexible with monetization options, he said — another bonus.

“Android gives us the ability to use agile development. We’re able to fix bugs, test new features, and release new versions very quickly. Android also allows us to explore different business models as we bring our products to market. This is especially important for a company like ours, where existing revenue-generation models like advertising or paid apps don’t fit well with our target market,” Toy said.

Now, fragmentation is still a major issue for Android developers. Lior said different screen sizes, custom ROMs and operator additions can wreak havoc on testing. And Apple is still a better place to make money, he agrees. But with device sales running high on Android, we’re likely to see more developers not just port iOS apps over to Android, but instead begin their work on Android. Experimental stuff, in particular, may start showing up more on Android. And we eventually may see a class of apps that are more robust on Android than on iOS. This may not do much to alter the momentum of each platform, but there’s an increasing chance we’ll see more really ground-breaking mobile apps on Android as time goes on.

Google still has to do a lot to ensure that the platform evolves well with more tools, enhancements and access to more APIs, something we’ll like hear more of at Google I/O next week. And the buying experience in Android Market needs to continue improving to make sure it reaches its money-making potential. But it seems like the early bet on Android’s more open design is increasingly resonating with developers and that can only mean more momentum for the platform as a whole.

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  1. I started writing Fresh Comics on iOS and quickly swapped iOS for Android as the “flagship” platform for the app. The major factors in my decision to swap in primary platform focus were:

    1. The Apple approval process is way too slow. I can release my app and get it in front of people as soon as it’s ready. On the Apple side, I’m waiting around a week or so before my changes hit the market. (I’ve noticed a similar delay in the Amazon App Store as well.) This wait really puts a damper on my enthusiasm to try and iterate quickly on the iOS platform.

    2. Android’s simply a more expressive platform that allows me to build the richest experience I can. My pattern for the past few releases has been to do the building and designing on Android to find out what features & presentations work best, get it out to Android users to quickly to receive feedback, and iterate. Once the Android app’s stabilized feature & design wise, I’ll port what I kept back to the iOS version, and submit that to Apple’s store (and wait). Since iOS is a simpler and less expressive platform than Android, a lot of this translation work is simplifying and removing features that are not supported (background processing features for one).

    Moving forward on future projects, I’ve decided to continue to target Android first for these reasons. Apple’s approval process simply introduces more friction and latency into my development process than I’m comfortable with.

    1. Thanks Chris, very useful information. Particularly for a new App developer.

    2. Chris, a couple of questions:

      There are a shedload of Comic Apps for iOS. So did you feel you were late to the party there?

      Are you making any money from it?

      1. I do feel like I was late to the party there, and I am making up lost ground. However, I feel that I have a strong set of features (robust offline access, a flexible store locator, etc.) that will help me catch up once I get my marketing in order.

        In terms of making money, Fresh Comics as currently constituted is ad-free and completely free for download. I’m working with comic retailers on a value-add feature for local comic shoppers (local events happening soon) that will serve as the main monetization engine. However, I’m currently focusing on getting a critical mass of users before I approach retailers about advertising their events through my app.

      2. Also, for those curious, in terms of downloads given equal marketing effort put toward both the iOS and Android platforms, Android’s outperforming iOS by a factor of 2.5 in terms of downloads. For what it’s worth…

  2. As a developer, I think another big reason is that you aren’t tied to a single development platform for Android like you are for iOS. The release of Mono For Android (develop Android apps using .Net) opens up Android to a whole other group of developers as well. I can develop for Android on Windows, Linux or OSX, but I only have one option for iPhone (without some pretty ugly workarounds)

    1. Pretty surprising that you are somehow unaware there are other options than XCode for iOS.

      1. I’m not talking about the IDE for iOS development, I’m talking about the fact that you’re pretty much limited the a Mac for the iphone SDK. There isn’t OS limitation when developing for Android.

  3. Nobody has ever heard of any of those apps.
    These developers basically like Android because they can hijack customers personal information without their knowledge which Apple doesn’t allow. Which is why you now have pop up ad infestation on Android phones that can’t be turned off.
    Nobody is making money on Android apps.
    Google counts things like wallpaper as apps.
    So the Android app situation is a horrible mess which shows no signs of being fixed.

    1. I think Android is geared and favor smaller dev shops; one man shop; mom and pop shops. It’s great, but I’ll get more excited and consider Android when the larger developers start making an earnest effort. Right now, the entire smart phone market is in startup mode and it’s too early to say what platform will ‘rule’, and if that really matters.

      1. Developers usually follow the customers and right now Android is selling very well.

      2. “and right now Android is selling very well.”

        But are people buying Apps. Or do you have to give them away?

    2. Darwin, you’ve presented the most balanced opinion on here. Way to go chap.

    3. Well, just because you haven’t heard of them, does not mean that others haven’t.

      Hijack? Do you have proof of this? Are they providing enhanced functionality, it looks like it, so the permissions are necessary.

      Where have you seen Android phones with pop-up ad infestations? I haven’t and I’ve owned at lest 3 android phones. The only thing I’ve heard of is Airpush, which uses the notification bar for ads. However, people quickly found out the culprit and the apps that used it, and forced developers to not only apologize, but remove the offending function.

      Nobody is making money on Android? Um, you may want to ask Gameloft, Rovio, and others about that. They are making boatloads.

      Actually, no. Google does not count a wallpaper as an app, unless it is a live wallpaper, meaning it has animations and other things that make it an app. There are wallpaper apps, sure, but as the article noted, there are also plenty of keyboard apps and others that enhance functionality. An example of this are ADW Launcher EX, Launcher Pro Plus, Go Launcher EX which allow you to change the look of your whole phone, while also adding more functionality, like scrolling for widgets, hidden docks, various transitions for your home screen, resizing app icons, and adding themes to your hearts content. All of this without having to root, or in iOS terms, jailbreak.

  4. Jeremy King Friday, May 6, 2011

    “Lior said different screen sizes, custom ROMs and operator additions can wreak havoc on testing. And Apple is still a better place to make money, he agrees.”

    As a developer – I would much rather make money and save time on testing.

    1. Then you should be looking seriously at webOS. No need to re-write for various delivery platforms like iOS forces you to do to support iPhone vs iPad.

      HP will deliver webOS on every laptop, desktop, phone and tablet they ship starting in a few weeks.

      Oh, and no need to be a Java guru either.

      1. “Then you should be looking seriously at webOS.”

        Where are the customers?

    2. To avoid starting from scratch on each version of your app to reach Android and iOS users, you could use an app development tool that creates cross-platform native apps. Agile mobile app platforms not only develop apps that run on more than one device, but they also let you make updates to your app without re-submitting to Apple’s App Store for approval. Developers will appreciate the flexibility in writing apps for multiple devices and the ability to make more money off their apps as the potential audience of users increases with each device supported. Check out Pyxis Mobile’s app development platform to learn more: http://www.pyxismobile.com/mobileplatform

  5. I’ve been a very successful Android developer for over three years. We have over 50 apps in the Android market, and about 20 in the iphone app store. Hands down – the Android market is going to out-grow the apple app store for the reason of hardware diversity.
    Apple is great, but it really only comes in one flavor – on 3 separate platforms. Android, is spreading everywhere, on the phone, on TV, and even in cars now. It’s a bit hard to keep up with, but I quite my full time job last year because we were so successful in the Android market and I haven’t looked back yet!
    I wrote an ebook that was just published in Kindle or you can get it on my website here http://moonbeamdevelopment.com/?name=Making-Money-With-Android-Book

    It’s all about my market tactics and success therein Android.

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