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iOS v Android: why Schmidt was wrong and developers still start on Apple

As Apple prepares for a full week in which it will fete and educate the developers who write apps for the iPhone and iPad (and also its Mac computers) at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco – and with Google preparing to do the same for those writing Android apps at its I/O event on 27 June – the question many are asking is: if Android phones outsell iPhones, why do developers still prefer to write for Apple first?

It wasn’t expected to be this way. Speaking at the LeWeb conference on 7 December 2011, Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt was in ebullient form as he considered the success of Google’s Android mobile operating system. “Android is ahead of the iPhone now,” he told the audience of techies and entrepreneurs. Ahead in terms of the number of phones, the quality of the software, the lower price, and having more companies making devices that used it, he said.

He also had some predictions: “Ultimately, application vendors are driven by volume, and volume is favoured by the open approach Google is taking,” he said. “There are so many manufacturers working so hard to distribute Android phones globally that whether you like ICS [Ice Cream Sandwich, the name for version 4.0 of Android, released in October] or not… you will want to develop for that platform, and perhaps even first.”

When one Android user told Schmidt it was frustrating to see iPhone and iPad – known as “iOS” – versions of apps coming to market before the Android one, Schmidt said that in part because of the new software, “my prediction is that six months from now you’ll say the opposite”. That is, that Android versions of particular products would be written before the iOS ones.

Six months later, there are few signs of that happening. Instead, even while the number of Android phones in use has continued to grow steadily, to more than 300m, and with Android phones making more than 50% of the 150m-odd smartphones sold worldwide every quarter, developers still look to Apple’s platform first.

It’s not initially obvious why. A huge number of apps are being launched on Android. Analytics firm Distimo, which tracks the various app stores, reckons that in the first four months of 2012 more than 100,000 apps were added to the Google Play store, versus 63,000 for Apple’s App Store. Microsoft’s Marketplace, for Windows Phone, and BlackBerry’s official stores added 35,000 and 22,000 respectively in the same period.

But follow the money – a big factor for the important developers, who can easily spend thousands writing a new app – and it’s a different story. Distimo and analyst firm CCS Insight launched their App Vu Global service in early April 2012, tracking downloads and revenues from the app stores. Its initial findings claimed that Apple’s App Store is generating $5.4m every day in app sales for the top 200 grossing iPhone and iPad apps. For Google Play, their estimate was just $679,000 for the top 200 grossing apps on Google Play, or about 12% of Apple’s revenue.

Another mobile app-tracking service, Flurry, noted on 7 June that “For every ten apps that developers build, roughly seven are for iOS.” Though the total volume of apps being developed has doubled – from over 9,000 in the first quarter of 2011 to more than 18,000 in the second quarter of 2012 – that 7:3 ratio in Apple’s favour has remained consistent.

Part of that has been because iPhone users have shown themselves willing to pay for apps in a way that Android users so far have not. In January 2012, Apple said that since 2008, when its App Store opened, developers had been paid a total of $4bn, of which more than $700m was paid in the last quarter of 2011 alone. Google hasn’t given a comparable figure, though Horace Dediu, who runs the Asymco consultancy, puts the figure for Google’s total app sales in 2011 at $300m – meaning developers would get $210m in total.

In March 2012, Flurry crunched data from developers using its tracking tools in their apps, and claimed that given the same number of users per platform, a developer who got $1 on the iTunes App Store would get $0.23 from Google Play.

Nine-year headstart in credit cards

That’s a key pointer to why developers don’t look to Android first. Some cases are simple examples of what economists call “opportunity cost”. Dave Addey is managing director of Agant, a British software developer which has written, among others, the Train Times app which costs £4.99 on the iPhone, and uses National Rail data to offer real-time data feeds, plan journeys and show timetables. “We still prioritise iOS,” he says. “Because it’s the main platform on which people will pay for an app. We haven’t done Android apps for business reasons. It comes down to this: do you port [translate] to Android, or do you develop another app for iOS? In the end, iOS is the better business case. Apple’s greatest trick has been making it really easy to pay for apps. Once you have your iTunes account, you just enter a password.” Google is trying to emulate that by encouraging people to add a credit card when they first set up a phone; but it is coming from a long way behind Apple, which started its iTunes Music Store selling music online in 2003, and is now one of the web’s biggest five holders of credit card details, along with Amazon, eBay and PayPal.

Addey points to the problems encountered by Imangi Studios, developer of the hugely popular Temple Run game – in which you are pursued along stone-lined routes by fast-moving unseen monsters – when it ported the app to Android, releasing it at the end of March.

It was a huge success in terms of downloads, hitting 5m in about 10 days. But Imangi Studios – a husband-and-wife team, plus a designer – soon discovered that Schmidt’s promise of Android being ahead in the number of phones and manufacturers was only too true. Despite writing it to run on 707 Android devices, they said that 99% of the emails requesting support were actually complaints that it wouldn’t run on the user’s particular phone model or version of Android. They were pilloried on Facebook, despite having what would be regarded by anyone as a successful release.

Breaking up is easy

Those subtle differences between devices are known in the industry as “fragmentation”. While Apple does have some fragmentation – there are seven models of iPhone, three different iPads and four of the non-phone iPod Touch – they pale into insignificance compared to Android’s, where OpenSignals, which provides a network coverage app, recently found 1,363 device models running Android, from 599 different brands – though Samsung dominates with about 40% of the market.