Every smartphone platform now has its own App Store, led by Apple’s iPhone. And while some software firms are busily cranking out apps for all of them — Apple, Google Android, BlackBerry, Palm WebOS, Microsoft Windows Mobile, Symbian, etc. — many are choosing to stick with only Apple.
Why? The reasons are different for for every software company. Some prefer the technology that Apple offers, which competitors don’t offer. Others prefer the iPhone’s built-in payment platform. Others note that BlackBerry and Palm can’t support high-end graphics for games.
Here’s a nice essay by Marco Arment — the one-man shop behind Instapaper, the excellent iPhone app and Web service — about why he’s only building apps for the iPhone so far. In short: Because Apple’s audience was big enough at the get-go to support his development costs. That is not (yet) the case for platforms like Android or Palm.
It was worth writing an iPhone app for my service, and it has been profitable enough to justify its development cost. But that cost has been very high. Developing a good app takes a lot of time and creates an indefinite commitment to maintenance and improvements.
It was worth developing an iPhone app because:
- I used an iPhone, and I wanted to use the app.
- iPhone OS already had a huge installed base of devices when the App Store launched.
Don’t underestimate the importance of that second part.
Apple’s App Store is not popular because it gives developers an opportunity to write more software and sell it through a proprietary, pain-in-the-arse storefront system. It’s popular because it came with a huge audience, so the development-time investment was more likely to be worthwhile. Trust me — we wouldn’t put up with Apple’s bullshit if there wasn’t a lot more money to be made than any other mobile platform.
Compare this to the installed base of Android or webOS, and it’s much harder to justify the investment. Their installed bases are each less than 10% of the iPhone OS’s. (I can’t find exact numbers, so I’m being generous, but they’re probably actually well under 5% each.) If I’m likely to make less than 10% of my iPhone income on Android or webOS apps, I can’t afford to write and support them.
The iPhone’s design also helps keeps development costs relatively low. Android devices each have significantly different hardware, complicating development. It’s a bit early to make that call for webOS, but its two devices so far already have different screen sizes and resolutions. And there’s no iPod Touch equivalent: there’s no way for me to reliably run a cheap, contract-less, service-less Android or webOS device for development and testing that’s anything like their phones.
Giving developers an app store is the easy part. The hard part is bringing us enough customers. The iPhone is so good that it built up a huge installed base without any third-party apps, but no Android or webOS devices can say that yet.
For Palm, it’s too late. They bet the company and made a decent effort, but it wasn’t enough. They’ve already lost.
Android has a shot. I’ve received more requests for an Android app since the Droid’s launch than I ever have before. It’s still not justifiable, but I bet it someday will be.