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Startup investor Fred Wilson made a bold statement earlier this week, telling companies that when it comes to mobile development, they should think about developing for Google’s Android operating system first, Apple’s iPhone second, and probably the mobile web third, via HTML 5.Wilson is largely basing his argument on Google’s increasing market share in the smartphone market.
Here’s the truth: That’s only good advice for some companies, and is actually BAD advice for many others. For now, in most cases, companies should still focus their development efforts on Apple’s iOS first, with Android second.
1) If you actually want to charge money for your app, Google’s Android market is still a mess, and is inferior to Apple’s.
Android is only as good if you are shipping free apps, and either trying to make money from advertising, or through other means. Apple’s App Store is a good e-commerce experience, and includes features like in-app purchasing for virtual goods and “freemium” upgrades; Google’s is terrible, and is improving slowly.
It’s bad enough that the guys behind the hugely popular mobile game “Angry Birds” only offer a free version on Android, while they have gotten rich off selling 99-cent paid versions on the iPhone App Store.
Here’s what one top mobile developer told us: “We are seeing about five times less paid downloads on Android as compared to iOS. I think Google still has ways to go to get on par with iTunes App Store in terms of ease of use and payments, which I believe is the main reason sales numbers are lacking as compared to the iOS platform. In my opinion, Android Market has a very cumbersome payment system and an even worse, horrible UI.”
And here’s another testimonial from Halfbrick’s Shainiel Deo, developer of the popular smartphone game Fruit Ninja: “All things told, the Android experience has been good for us. We can’t really complain seeing as we have been the #2 paid app on the Android Marketplace since we launched. However, compared to iOS, the sales have been really disappointing. The main problem is due to the payment and distribution systems for the& Android Marketplace not being up to scratch. Google has a lot of work to do with providing additional payment systems as well as better informing customers why their transactions have failed. A high percentage of& payments are rejected and there is usually not enough information on why the payment was rejected.”
In short, if you care at all about charging for your app, Android is still far inferior.
2) Even if you don’t care how bad Google’s app commerce setup is, the Android app store is still a terrible experience. If Apple’s iPhone App Store is Walmart, Google’s Android Market is a messy flea market.
App discovery is a particular challenge. If you are a huge brand that will get noticed no matter what, like Twitter or Amazon Kindle, that might not be a problem. But we’d say it’s still easier to create a hit app from scratch in Apple’s store than Google’s.
3) If you are building games, Android is still far inferior to Apple’s App Store, both in terms of technology and commerce.
Part of this is because of Android hardware fragmentation — having to support all of those different flavours of Android devices. But Apple also still offers much better game development tools, and is improving them via services like its new “GameCenter” social network.
4) Android market share is indeed growing, very impressively. But Apple’s market share stats don’t include the iPod touch, which is a HUGE app sales outlet, especially for games.And, they don’t include the iPad, where companies can actually charge more money for their apps than they do on mobile phones.
5) And if you are trying to project for where the market is going in the future, bear in mind that the iPhone is eventually going to launch on Verizon’s network in the U.S., which should drive up its market share, and could put a big dent in Google’s.
Wilson notes this, but we think he underestimates how many iPhones that Verizon will sell. (More on that later.)
In other words, it seems he’s saying that the advantage that Apple has in mobile app commerce will be short-lived, and that companies should forget about that, and put their biggest resources where the biggest audience will be — Android.
Perhaps that will be true eventually — few have done as well as Wilson when it comes to predicting digital markets.
But one of the things that sets mobile software development apart from traditional PC software development or hardware development is how relatively fast and simple it is. If the market really does shift dramatically in a year or two, and Android really is a better app ecosystem then, companies can easily shift resources accordingly without losing much today.
Further, since Wilson is writing from the perspective of a startup investor, who works with companies that have millions of dollars to burn without worrying much about making a profit from their mobile apps, the idea of charging money for apps may mean less to him.
To many of his startups, and to many big companies, mobile apps are loss-leaders or alternate distribution points for the “real” product or service — not the main purpose of the company. That does take away some of Apple’s advantages. But there are lots of companies that are already making nice money selling apps, and they just can’t do that as well with Android today.
So for today, all things considered, the app story is still strongest at Apple’s iOS, and that is where most developers should still focus their attention first, with Android in second place.
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