Android's fraying tightrope with app developers

Android, the F-word, and the S-word

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Watching the hoopla around Apple's Worldwide Developer's Conference is always an exercise in spin management, as Apple's promotion of iOS always leads to a flurry of counter arguments from those who prefer (or sell) devices with the Android operating system.

Some of those counter arguments, though, fall more than a little flat, much to my frustration.

Take Matthew Miller, who argues (quite thoroughly), that the latest version of Android, Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), already has many of the same features that iOS 6 will have when it is released this Fall.

While Miller makes an excellent case, he forgets that ICS only has 7.1 percent of total Android market share, according to Google. Right now, the latest version of Apple's mobile platform, iOS 5, is around 75-80 percent, depending on who you ask.

When iOS 6 rolls out, because of Apple's unified platform strategy, I would expect similar market penetration in a matter of weeks. At ICS' current growth levels of about one percent per month, ICS might be around 10 percent of the Android market by September.

This is the F-word problem: fragmentation. Android is constantly dogged by it, because there are not only seven deployed versions of Android out in the wild, but there are also thousands of Android devices deployed, many of which require some sort of tweaking by an apps developer to get their app stabilized, because of the differing hardware requirements.

So why do developers even bother? It is the open source factor at work?

Perhaps, but I think a better case could be made with the numbers. While Apple CEO Tim Cook touted 360 million iOS devices sold in the platform's entire lifecycle at WWDC, Android chief Andy Rubin twitter-bragged that 900,000 Android devices are activated every day. (That's 328.5 million devices per year.)

That's a mighty big target, and on the surface that would seem to be a big reason to develop for Android. But then you get reports like this one from mobile analyst Flurry that state "[f]or every $1.00 a developer earns on iOS, he can expect to earn about $0.24 on Android."

Assuming Apple's devices grow on average at about 72 million devices a year (and I just took a straight averaging here), then an iOS developer could see $72 million on new iOS devices this year, or $78.8 million on new Android devices.

This, more than any other reason, may be what is keeping Android growing. After all, assuming Flurry's report is correct, then even though an Android developer can expect to make one-fourth per app than an iOS developer, the potential market is four times as large.

This seems a tenuous balance, though: Android's openness is to be lauded, and it's clearly doing what it needs to do be attracting new hardware vendors and devices all of the time. But the lack of consistency in hardware and APIs is slowly driving Android developers nuts--something I hear repeatedly from mobile developers.

Then there's the S-word: saturation. There are growing concerns that smartphones in general are reaching the saturation point in the U.S. When that happens, all this phenomenal growth will vanish and Android's (and iOS') numbers won't look so hot. There are other markets of course, but will they be better or worse in terms of revenue for app developers?

My concern is that sooner of later the problems will become more painful than the pleasure of the potential revenue. Or growth of Android will slow due to market saturation. Either way, app development on Android could slow to a crawl.

If that happens, it won't matter how cool the Android features are: no new apps will mean no new users.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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