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iOS first…so what?

By Alok Saboo on December 13th, 2011

When Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO, was asked a question at LeWeb on why some of the coolest apps come out on iOS first (instead of Android), he responded that Android will the platform of choice by next year.

Robert Scoble debunked the idea and claimed that “iOS is the king” and that Eric Schmidt is “wrong and will continue to be wrong”. Robert makes some great point and is definitely right in saying that iOS platform has the virality coefficient (that Android lacks currently). In a related posts, RWW and GigaOM note that three out of four developers are writing for iOS first.

Clearly iOS has a huge appeal and the current trends favor iOS, however, I am not sure if iOS will continue to remain developers’ first choice (and even if it does, it may not mean much). Here’s why…

Google Android vs. Apple iOS

Momentum: Apple reaped the benefits of being a first-mover in the smartphone space. Early entry ensured that developers, and in turn users, got hooked into the Apple ecosystem. Moreover, initial Android devices were nowhere close to Apple’s devices. The Android OS itself was buggy and lacked standardization, further cementing developers loyalties towards Apple. Early inroads by Apple, created switching costs for both developers and early adopters, resulting in the virality factor for iOS.

The virality factor may have been a strong reason for developers to develop for iOS first, however, developers cannot ignore the momentum that Android has developed. Look at the chart below (source Gartner):

Google Android vs. Apple iOS Market Shares 2011

There are no doubts that Android now comfortably leads the smartphone space, at least in terms of market share. Android’s accomplishment is even more impressive considering that it appeared almost a year after the first iPhone was unveiled.

10 Billion Android app downloads Q3 2011

Even in terms of app sales, a proxy for developer and consumer interest in the platform, Android is doing very well. To give you some figures, Apple App store that was launched on 10 July 2008 had over 500,000 apps and around 18 billion app downloads by December 2011. Android market, which was unveiled on 22 October 2008, has already passed 10 billion app downloads by December 2011.  

Please note that unlike Apple that only has only app store, Android has at least 4 major stores (Android Market, Amazon App Store, GetJar, Appbrain, etc.). So, the actual app downloads over Android platform is likely to be much higher.

While iOS growth is plateauing, Android seems to have seized the initiative and is growing at a very healthy rate.

Maturity of the platform: It would be safe to say that at least until now iOS was (and probably still is) superior in terms of ease-of-development. The multitude of devices and the lack of standardization led to the fragmentation of Android, making development far more difficult for Android than for iOS, which only has a few devices to support. It is amazing that Android achieved the kind of growth despite these issues.

Android EvolutionGoogle has acknowledged the fragmentation issue and is working aggressively to eliminate that in the future. The latest release of Android, Ice Cream Sandwich, seeks to put an end to the fragmentation issue with increased standardization across devices. Early reviews have been very positive and looks like Google is moving in the right direction. Google is also exerting more control over the platform, requiring manufacturers to get Google’s approval of their plans to eliminate fragmentation and inconsistencies. All these factors should significantly ease development and encourage developers to work on Android.

Growth Prospects: Developers are essentially interested in making money and they will invest resources where they will have the maximum impact. While iOS has been the clear winner in the past, the decision may not be obvious in the future. Android has the momentum and is clearly leading in numbers. Android has lot to offer and the number suggests that many users prefer Android over iOS. Further, Android devices are competing across the price spectrum – there are premium devices competing against Apple as well as the more affordable ones. Even if Android users spend less on apps, the absolute number may justify the choice. Amazon’s entry in the Android space provides additional opportunities for developers to work on Android. Finally, given the open nature of Android, there will be lot more devices running Android, offering more potential for developers to make money of it.

Are we asking the wrong question?

Despite this debate on Apple iOS vs. Google Android, we need to answer – so what? Individuals make choices all the time and often (as in this case) the choices are not mutually exclusive. Even if iOS continues to dominate, developing for Android is a must. As Sachin Agarwal suggested that one cannot ignore the growth and developer-friendly environment of the Android platform.

Finally, we need to keep in mind that the mobile space is huge and both iOS and Android have enough room to grow without eating each other’s lunch. Does it really matter if a developer starts developing on iOS instead of Android or vice versa. As long as there are users on Android (or any other platform), developers will serve it.

Please note that I am not suggesting that there will be no differences across the two platforms. They are different by design and these differences will manifest in various forms, but such differences will increasingly be marginal.

Apple and Google have different utility functions and have different objectives; why evaluate both of them with the same yardstick…

  • Brijesh Tripathi

    nice write but a few points:
    fragmentation: how is this being addressed? Promised by google, but not delivered. ICS has not solved that problem at all, at least not yet.

    Control: Google doesn’t really control android now (amazon tablet), so really hard to believe that they can control manufacturers.

    Yeah, I read the ‘google vs amazon article’ too, and I still don’t get why google would ‘want’ that.
    That android is growing exponentially, much more than apple, is doubtless. Will android ever get that finesse comparable to iOS is something time would tell. With the ‘appeasing’ nature of android, it looks unlikely. 

    • Alok Saboo

      Great points…

      Fragmentation continues to be an issue, but some fragmentation is to be expected given the fast pace of Android development and multiplicity of the parties involved. In any case, I am not a huge fan of the label “fragmentation”. In an industry that is evolving as fast as this, consumers already know that their products will be outdated (and often is a good excuse to upgrade). Apple has only launched 5 iPhones so far (iPhone, iPhone 3G, iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, and iPhone 4s) and there already are several features that are not available on the earlier devices. If Apple (which controls the entire value chain) cannot manage fragmentation with 5 devices, how can we even expect Google to eliminate fragmentation. That said, I appreciate your point and hope that things improve in the future.

      As regards Amazon, I feel that it helps Google more than it hurts. Amazon legitimizes Android and gives developers one more reason to develop for Android. And it is not that Google “wants” this. Given that the Android source code is publicly available, anyone can start developing their own mobile OS (e.g., CyanogenMOD). As I mentioned in Amazon vs. Google post, it may be a sub-optimal strategy for Amazon.

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