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Should Android be Startups’ First Choice?

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In the heady days of the iPhone’s (s aapl) advent, Kleiner Perkins announced a $100 million fund to focus on investing in its wake. Just two years later, Kleiner Perkins has tapped out the $100 million and and has since doubled that commitment with another $100 million earlier this year. It’s probably money well spent, but could it be better invested in Android (s goog)?

After all, Google’s Android already claims 25 percent of mobile web usage, and is on track to dominate over half the smartphone market, according to a new report from Piper Jaffray. So where’s the Android Fund?

Yes, Android has been slower to pay dividends to its third-party developer community than Apple’s iOS, in part because of its platform fragmentation problems. However, this strikes me as a transitory problem: one that is being resolved by Google, and that entrepreneurial developers are likely to help fix. There’s simply too much money at stake for the problem not to be solved.

All of which leads me to believe we’re not far off from the time that startups will pitch VCs on their new Android-only software. Whatever the one-upmanship between Steve Jobs and Google over which company is activating the most handsets, it’s clear that Android is shipping in huge quantities, and its momentum is accelerating, while the Piper Jaffray report referenced above predicts Apple’s iOS will plateau at 20 to 30 percent of the smartphone market. That’s nothing to sneeze at, of course, but if Android looks likely to top 50 percent, which is the smarter long-term bet?

Android also comes with the added benefit of being very developer-friendly. It’s not perfect but its openness is a welcome reprieve from Apple’s ‘Big Brother’ approach. Noted Firefox developer Joe Hewitt calls it “really flexible, agnostic, and developer-friendly…[like] Windows.”

That’s not a critique. Hewitt, in addition to his browser claim-to-fame, is also the developer who originally took Facebook to the iPhone. He’s been involved in some exceptional projects, and recognizes Windows as an exceptional developer platform, a compliment he’s willing to offer Android despite its shortcomings, particularly in the area of tools.

Windows, for all its stodginess, managed to take at least 95 percent of the desktop market. I suspect Android will claim quite a decent share of the mobile market, too.

Again, Android is far from perfect, but it offers developers some pleasantries that iOS, and more to the point, Apple, doesn’t provide. Android development is done in Java (s orcl), as opposed to Apple’s once-obscure Objective C. Java may be old-school, but it’s still a primary development platform for a wide swath of developers, particularly in enterprise IT, which does a great deal of the world’s application development.

Android’s restrictions on how applications work are based on the carrier, rather than Apple’s often arbitrary usage policies related not just to application submission, but also to location, logging of user clickstream and content. That kind of information can be manna from heaven for developers as it helps them fine-tune their apps to meet user needs, but iOS is largely a black box, whereas Android is an open book.

For these reasons, and for the ease of working with Google compared to the Apple alternative, we should begin seeing more developers start with Android, rather than iOS. And it will happen soon. Yes, despite Android’s fragmentation problem (though for the company that overcomes this fragmentation for Google, there’s a lot of money to be made). Yes, despite the uncoolness of its Java approach, or even the Oracle lawsuit-inspired cloud hovering over Android.

When you have big market share and an open approach to development and deployment, the developers will flock. If your startup is on the cusp of making this decision, or already has, please share your experience with us in the comments below.

Related GigaOM Pro Research: It’s Time for Nokia to Embrace Android

26 Responses to “Should Android be Startups’ First Choice?”

  1. Matt, thanks for some food for thought.

    Speaking as a developer with a couple decades of experience in business apps on various platforms, I’m backing Android — I’ve started developing for it after evaluating both it and Apple.

    “Fragmentation” issue a bit overblown, I feel, but does need to be considered and is by the SDK and associated materials.

    Smartphones are being commoditized, and Android is doing it, just as Windows did for “personal computing”. (BTW, Windows may have sold a lot of hardware, and made a lot of money for a lot of people, but it retarded progress in software immensely — most developers were too busy trying to deal with the bugs and limitations in the second rate crap Microsoft shovelled onto the market. Remember, a huge part of the 3rd party market was for stuff that Microsoft got wrong).

    Economics are driving this far more than anything else, I think. Android can get smartphones into more people hands faster since carriers have to deal with shrinking margins and Android is cheaper while also being more than good enough to deliver really useful and cool apps.

    Platforms matter far more to developers than users. Users just want something useful and cool that reliably works, at a good price.

    And developers just want users.

  2. David Chartier

    Are there any other industries where “open!” is so blindly and repeatedly chanted as a reason to pick one competitor or product over another? Automotive? Furniture? Appliances? I can’t think of one.

    Besides the good point Scoble made, I think a growing number of users are waking up to Google’s lies, and developers are going to want to pay attention. Android is open for carriers first, developers second, and users a very distant third, if at all. Handsets are increasingly locked down and riddled with irrevocable crapware. Google is now actively helping evil ISPs like Verizon and even AT&T to fundamentally destroy the democratic, level playing field nature of the Internet for nothing more than financial gain.

    I deleted my three Google accounts and one Google Apps account a month ago. I will not have anything to do with Google, its lies, or its war on the Internet. And I’m hearing from more and more people who are making the same changes.

  3. reelfernandes

    iOS has peaked in popularity, the gush of wildeyed developers, many newly arrived on-scene attracted by rumors of millions to be made with fart apps, is over. iOS is on a downhill track, while Android is on the uphill slope. In my opinion it’s more rewarding to make a presence in new & exciting streams, and the openness of developing for Android is superior to the iOS gatekeeper ecosystem. But there will always be those who go where the numbers are, which is why Windows developers have always been more plentiful than OSX. It’s not easy financial decision whether to go with emerging or established platforms but I’m having way more fun with Android and think it’s the best long-term choice.

    • If by “peaked” you mean “Apple sold triple the number of iPhone 4s in its opening weekend this year, 20 million iOS devices in the last three months, is activating nearly a quarter million new devices every day, and the iPad has taken a serious (and increasing) bite out of the netbook industry,” then sure, ‘peaked’ sounds like a great assessment.

      I’m all for being a fan of one platform or another and making an argument for one’s advantages. But claiming that iOS has done anything but skyrocket this year is nuts.

  4. So what I hear you saying is, there are major known, current shortcomings in Android development in terms of tools available and the fragmentation of the platform which make developing for it by all accounts a major pain, but really, truly it really is going to change real soon so it is time to forget about that well integrated and successful marketplace in iOS and start repositioning?

    Apple’s approval process appears to be increasingly predictable so play in their pool, sure you have to wear the regulation swimwear, but the water is warm and the company is good.

  5. Funny how you not only cherry-picked the Hewitt quote, you truncated it to exclude the real meat: “it’s really flexible, agnostic, and developer-friendly, but also really sloppily designed.”

    That missing bit is the real meat because that quote is part of a twitter-tirade by Hewitt about what an awful experience he’s having dev’ing on Android. Instead you use it as the basis of how wonderful Android and Windows development is?! Weak sauce…

  6. I am iPhone developer and I could not agree more with this post. There are several problems we are having with Apple at the moment.
    Right now Apple is delaying more than two weeks the approvals. We have several bugs fixed waiting for Apple approval already 19 days, and this affects our sales directly.
    We would like also to try some technologies testing them in some free apps, but some of them are not allowed by the devices.
    I believe that Android is better to be the primary platform mainly because the freedom of the ecosystem, then it is possible to port the apps to iPhone.
    I love the Apple devices, but unfortunately for us, the inflexible rules are starting to affect our business.

  7. I’ve talked with eBay, OpenTable, and Sephora recently about what they are seeing. They still see the best customers are using iPhones and more dollars are being driven via iPhone apps than Android (or any other mobile platform, for that matter — Sephora’s head of web told me she sees 80% of all mobile phone usage in their stores are iPhones. Until that changes startups won’t listen to your advice.

    • Speaking from “developer” point of view, I would agree with this that iOs market is a safer bet for direct monetization.

      Apple has the magic to make its user buys stuff. I become a Mac user, and I bought a $13 software that I would have never bought on Windows (just few months ago). They really nailed it down with the iPhone/iPad App Store.

      Now, if you want to “build-to-flip” strategy and needs lot of users and do not care about early monetization, then, Android is probably a wise bet.

  8. Long term, will Google give up on Android – They don’t have any control and they’ve now even lost search on the new Samsung/Verizon – It’s Bing
    If Google can’t make Android investments pay off through mobile search, what happens.

    Not sure all these rosy android predictions will come true, too early to tell, it could easily just go to hell in a hand basket.

  9. YourMommy

    There are so many incorrect and uninformed statements here I don’t know where to start. Its as if you cut and pasted from a bunch of articles and mashed it all together. Which is probably exactly what you did.

    • I agree 100% with YourMommy: Developing for Android may be more appealing than iPhone due to the aforementioned “open vs closed, Google vs Apple” issues, but developing, marketing and making a living developing Android apps that work across all the _carrier_ restrictions is a huge (and “old school mobile”) PITA. I’ll stick with the relative accessibility and profitability of the iTunes App Store. All you other guys jump on Android, and leave me the click-once upload and sell iPhone. Thanks.

  10. I’m still waiting for Android to attract quality apps that will make me ditch my iPhone.

    Even comparing apps by the same company one can see the graphic quality on the iPhone outshines its Android sibling (Facebook, Twitter, Remember The Milk, etc.).

    Until then I will continue to use the iDevice to my own hurt (as I really want to use Google Voice and an email app that doesn’t suck).

  11. Well, for those who are looking ahead 1 year or more, WP7 may be the one to develop for. I just think MS will make a strong comeback with WP7 and will dominate again. They have too many advantages with W7/Office/XBox/Silverlight.