Android App Store: The Cure Is Worse Than The Disease
So you’re a mobile developer and you want to start building apps for the glory, the fame, and the cold, hard cash. You’re probably looking at the iPhone vs. Android war unless you were just recently thawed out from cryogenic storage, in which case I welcome you to the 21st century.
As a mobile development platform, the iPhone might as well rename itself to “Lightning Rod for Criticism.” The critiques are not undeserved–largely due to its App Store, but the platform itself has a fair number of things to gripe about too. Google “iPhone App Development Sucks” and you’ll find lots of complaints usually distilled down to:
- Getting approved requires intervention by the Pope or some higher deity. Rejections are potentially random.
- Approval times are so long, users get mad because bug fixes take a long time to migrate into the ecosystem.
- The vast majority of apps in the store are ignored because they are swimming in a sea of competition.
- Apple is just plain mean and kicked my dog for amusement.
Maybe not the fourth one as much as the first three, but they’re all around in various proportions. They usually result in the following solutions:
- Apple should change the app approval process.
- Apple should remove its stranglehold on the iPhone app store.
- Developers should get the new <insert Android-based phone here> because Android’s platform has:
- No problematic approval process
- Greater opportunity
- Lower competition
- The hot new market
- Better development environment
My question to the mobile development community is the grass really greener on the Android side of the fence? Let’s take a hard look:
The Android Marketplace
I have a few friends with the Droid/Android phone sets and they love to brag about just how cool they are compared to the iPhone. I’ve seen the handset and played with it for a bit. It’s nice enough for sure. But when I ask them about the Android App Store, instead of telling me about Android, they rail on how broken the Apple App store is. That missed the point. I wanted to know how theirs works. So finally, I checked it out for myself…
There are no less than SEVEN different stores (that I can find to date, Jan ’10), either already available or in the works, including:
- Android Marketplace
- Motorola Shop4Apps (accidentally discovered back in December, 2009)
- MiKandi (the first adult app store, and no I’m not linking to it. )
- General Mobile and
- Sony Ericsson (both mentioned here, coming soon to a browser near you)
This is progress? Now instead of contending with ONE process, ONE registration fee, and potentially, ONE set of handset, I’m faced with a nightmare combinatorial problem of up to seven places to deal with as a developer (with seven fees, seven policies, seven places to potentially get rejected if they dislike something, etc), and SEVEN places to shop as a consumer. As a developer (especially a micro ISV), my resources were already strapped but now they’re positively spread razor thin in this model.
Oh, but wait! I want to stick with the MAIN store, because they clearly won’t all win, right? You might guess that Google’s will win, but are you really 100% sure about that? What if the Google Phone continues to have lackluster sales like it did in the first week?
Not looking good there for Google, is it? Yeah, so you’re going to hedge your bets, submit to multiple stores and reach for some aspirin. So #1 on our list isn’t looking great.
The number one reason most (but not all) developers create mobile apps is to get some economic benefit. How does Android stack up in terms of economic potential?
Apple and Android stores couldn’t be more different in size: Apple’s app store is estimated to make $2.4 Billion dollars per year (source: AdMob). For some perspective, that’s about the 2008 GDP of Somalia and about 2x the 2008 GDP of the Maldives. Official Android figures have yet to come out, but AdMob has estimated their size at about $60 Million dollars per year, as of about 6 months ago. For the mathematically challenged, that makes Android’s Marketplace about 2% of the size of Apple’s iTunes economy, or Apple’s iTunes economy is about 40x larger than Android’s.
And as if that weren’t depressing enough, the Android Market’s purchase rate is less than half that of the iTunes App Store (19% of Android users bought apps vs. 50% of Apple users). There’s some speculation that Android users have a higher ability to pirate purchased apps, and this is impacting the actual purchase rates. Either way, the fact that the Android user base is less likely to buy apps coupled with the size difference makes the economic benefit of the platform shaky at best.
That makes #2 as a reason to switch somewhat naive.
App Store Competition
Is the market situation better with Android’s Marketplace because of lower competition? Here’s one developer’s experience with Android vs. iPhone markets. My favorite is their quote:
A good example is the well known game Trism, which sold over $250,000 in it’s first two months on the iPhone. On Android it has sold, to date (August 2009), less than 500 copies. That’s $1,046 total earnings, max. How psyched are those guys that they ported a huge hit to Android and can’t even cover a party sub for the release dinner?
Ouch. And if a well known title is struggling like that, what does that say about the lesser known apps?
Internal competition is a good thing–competition means that everyone thinks this platform is interesting. Android doesn’t seem to have critical mass here. Unfortunately, Android has external competition, but not in a good way. If you want to get the best deal on apps, you actually need to shop and price-compare apps between stores–how’s that for a great experience?
We noticed that the MobiHand store features some apps that were also found on Handango’s site, like the GoogHelper app and the FotMob app, for example. However, on OnlyAndroid, GoogHelper was $3.95 whereas Handango sold it for $4.95. FotMob, on the other hand, was free on Handango but was $7.99 on OnlyAndroid.
I think we can scratch #3 as a good reason.
Android Market: Hot or Not?
Android has the buzz, but Android’s market share just doesn’t touch Apple’s, either in terms of payout or number of handsets available. Here are figures from Quantcast for Oct/Nov in 2009 comparison charts (This is the most recent data available for this post, I’d love to see how Dec changed this, if at all, with the release of the Motorola Droid).
Notice two things:
- Android’s jump in market share was at the expense of RIM, Windows Mobile and other non-Apple OSes.
- Apple’s market share remained untouched.
So why does Apple maintain such a captive audience? They understand that a mobile device should be
The iPhone is the first mobile device to accurately capture that trifecta of characteristics. A positive user experience will trump “open platforms” and all that other developer-centric nonsense that we like to spout. Android merely copied most of what the iPhone had already innovated, but without adding much to its predecessor’s heritage. As an iPhone user, my motive to switch platforms is low. Android’s market share will stagnate soon for that reason alone.
What about the Android Marketplace vs. iTunes? iTunes is a case study in user friendliness. The Android Marketplace is functional but a real pain to navigate. Try this fun experiment: Browse the Top Paid Apps in the Android Marketplace. You have to hover over each app to find out what it does and each page contains 8 apps. You can’t see how much an app costs until you visit the developer’s own site. Apple, by contrast, puts some minimal info on each app including publisher and price for each app and I can see up to 100 at a time.
Developers, Developers, Developers!
The Android’s development platform is a clear win for software nerds. Developing an Android app means using Java, a well-known, well-documented language with loads of great tools and relative ease of uploading them to the device. Apple’s XCode is a piece of crap, even on a good day. Provisioning your iPhone app is a small nightmare that even the most seasoned of developers will struggle with.
Finally, a point for Android! But unfortunately, developer friendliness is the least important aspect of the platform. Not just Android, any platform.
Steve Jobs Is Still Pwning Android
Let’s recap thus far: With Apple, you have a painful setup process, a lousy development environment , a costly annual fee, and a single app store that if you’re part of the Blessed, you can make some fat cash, hand over fist.
With Android, you have seven potential stores to deal with, a reasonable development environment, a lot of uncertainty about the market, and no economic incentive to make apps because the payout isn’t working out like Apple’s app store.
I wouldn’t call that much of an incentive to go with anything but Apple, even with all the negatives in Apple’s basket.
The iPhone scratched an itch no one knew they had and the Apple App Store took off into the stratosphere, inspired by a paranoid and sometimes irrational father figure culture. And it’s still kicking the crap out of everything else. Android’s game of catch-up is turning into a potential nightmare for customers and developers alike.
My advice is to buy a black turtleneck, some khakis and buck up with your iPhone development. Cocoa may be a pain and Objective-C far less fun than Java, but Android’s cure is worse than the disease.
UPDATE: Six weeks later, the Nexus One launch is declared a flop. Sales are 10% of either Droid or iPhone during the same 74 day period of their launch cycle. Not exactly the iPhone killer Google was hoping for.