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Why Android desperately needs a billion dollar success story: The best new apps are all going iPhone-first

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Why startups are all going iPhone-first
There’s been a number of articles over the last year that reiterate a simple fact: The best new apps are all going iPhone-first. Here’s three popular articles on this topic over the last few months:

At this point, going iPhone-first is a widely held best practice. It’s our generation’s version of “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.” While there’s some debate on the margins on how quickly you should follow up with an Android app, certainly no one is arguing for Android-first (meaning, don’t do iPhone). There’s a number of reasons for this consensus, which the above articles thoroughly explain- here’s the superset of the reasons they give.

  • Device fragmentation – both OS versions, carrier/handset add-ons, and hardware itself
  • Less advanced, less stable tools and documentation
  • Larger install base, but smaller addressable market (Feldman states that a 50% market share really translates to 12% if you support the most recent versions of Android, versus 30% for iPhone)
  • Less valuable audiences on Android, losing ground in the US in key demos
  • Cheaper iPhones may steal marketshare from Android in the future
  • Higher cost of development for Android (2-3X claims Steve Cheney)
  • $800k-$1.2M seed rounds leading to a “all-in on one platform” strategy

Note, I’m not saying I agree with above, just summarizing what’s been said.

In addition to this, I’d also like to add a couple more human aspects of the decision:

  • Many/Most startup founders and employees are Steve Jobs fanboys, carry iPhones, and want to design for themselves
  • Their friends carry iPhones, and they want to make something for their friends
  • There’s more hipster designery mobile developers who build for iPhone, and that’s the supply-side of talent in SF Bay Area
  • Investors (other than Bubba Murarka) usually carry iPhones, so it’s easier to pitch to them
  • More tech press outlets want to cover iPhone-specific news

Whether you agree if the above is sane or not, the reality is, there’s a lot of friction to going against the norms. In order for a whole class of developers to move en masse to the Android platform is going to require a big carrot. I’m going to argue that this big carrot is going to be that the best developers, the ones who are investing $1M+ into a single app, need to feel like there’s such a huge opportunity in Android that they can’t miss out.

What Android can learn from Microsoft Windows
This consensus towards iPhone-first is happening at a critical time for Android. In many ways, the platform has been a huge success, and many who lived through the Windows vs. Mac years could make some interesting comparisons.

Here’s a stab at it- here’s some of the key reasons why Microsoft Windows won:

  • Cheaper
  • Ubiquitous
  • More open
  • Better penetration into the workplace
  • Lots of applications that were exclusive to the platform

I’d argue that on almost all the point above, Android has achieved the same success as Windows. It’s cheaper, there’s more devices sold, it’s more open. But a critical component, of having more apps, isn’t there. Remember how there was always some key games that’d run on Windows that wouldn’t exist on Mac? Or how there were a bunch of business applications that would only run on Windows? That meant that the Windows platform had the virtuous cycle between developers and users to drive total domination.

But Android is not Windows. When you look at the current mobile ecosystem, iPhone has more apps. It has better apps. It gets the designery, well-funded startups to build iPhone-first.

Consumers and developers, together, will continue to choose the iPhone until that network effect is broken.

Today, Android is merely playing catchup – every time there’s a proprietary iPhone app, soon thereafter, they’ve done a good job convincing developers that they also need to release an Android app. Yet, to play to win, Android needs to convince many, many developers to create apps exclusively for their platform, just like Windows did a generation ago.

How does Google get there?
To me, the biggest thing that Google is lacking is a billion dollar tech startup story that’s exclusively about how Android is a better platform for developers. That story doesn’t exist, and as a result, people have focused more on the friction in going Android-first, rather than the opportunity.

IMHO, Android gets there by rewarding startups that are exclusively choosing its platform. I’m talking my book here, as I’m involved with a few Android-first products, but it’s also nevertheless from direct knowledge. Google should extensively feature apps that aren’t merely clones of iOS apps – it’s not enough to play catchup. Instead, Android should seek to really showcase apps that take advantage of very differentiated features and APIs. There should be a billion user success story around Android launchers and lock screens in the US, rather than acquihires/flips of Aviate, Emu, Cover, and others. These were solid companies led by good teams that wanted to go Android-first, but there was a missed opportunity in supporting them.

App store discovery for iOS is a glaring weakness. It’s editorially driven, and doesn’t give great new apps the chance to be successful, which is why four companies own 70% of the top apps – Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and Apple. They’ve created a winner-take-all environment, especially as Facebook has shown how to effectively use App Constellations to drive traffic between apps. Instead, Google could create a much more fluid ecosystem, which would reward and boost apps the way that search has driven traffic to millions of long-tail websites. Everyone does SEO because they know that yes, you can create a public company like Yelp, or a fast-growing startup like Genius, on the Google Search platform. There’s no story like this in mobile.

And yes, shifting installs from the “head” developers into the long tail might make it less attractive for some, but the biggest developers will always develop for both – they don’t have a choice. The battleground is for the hearts, minds, and product roadmaps of new, innovative apps that will drive adoption for their parent platform.

Android is an important platform, and it’s built more closely to the open nature of the internet, and so for that reason I’m rooting for it. But to make it the first choice for developers, it needs to do more than it is.

Do you work at Google?
Finally, if anyone at Google is reading this, email me: voodoo [at] gmail. Like I said, I’m happy to talk my book :)

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