Based on my experience meeting hundreds of startup founders and VCs in both San Francisco and New York, few professionals in America’s tech hubs have owned an Android phone or believe in the opportunity of the platform. Meanwhile, the growth and prevalence of Android around the globe shows that there’s a massive platform shift going on right now–the type of event that historically has marked a point when one company achieves market dominance. If there is such a shift and opportunity under going on, why don’t the most innovative people in the most successful tech cities in the world care?
Android is not the preferred platform for new startups to build on. When you ask startups why they prefer to build for iOS first, the typical responses revolve around a few main points:
- Building for Android is more expensive and time intensive, mostly because of massive fragmentation in hardware and software
- iOS users are much more valuable and monetize more than Android users
- iOS is more popular in the US, and that’s the market most US-based companies know best. While Android is just under 85% worldwide, it’s only about 50% in the US
While these problems of fragmentation, monetization, and popularity do exist, the potential to be an early entrant on a new platform seems too massive to be overlooked. To get a better understanding, I asked three successful mobile entrepreneurs (two in San Francisco, one in NYC) from the Quibb network to share their opinions on why this is happening, and what it will take for Android to truly reach its potential as the top mobile platform.
The problem with Android is really a problem of perception. People think that developing on the platform is inferior to iOS, that it’s difficult to monetize, and that fragmentation is a huge pain. Whether or not this is actually true, perception is reality, so unless Google does a better job communicating its value proposition to developers (while minimizing functional weaknesses vis-a-vis iOS), these beliefs will hold true for a long time.
Think about it—when has Google really put its muscle into celebrating Android-only apps that make a lot of money? When has the company framed its opportunity around post-Gingerbread versions of the OS, rather than pushing its (mostly irrelevant) market share? When has it gone head-to-head against Apple to highlight its key differences? Sure, the company is making some efforts around unification via material design, but it lacks consistency in messaging as much as it has historically lacked consistency in products. And too many developers have already been burned to make the same mistake twice.
This problem only becomes worse when interacting with non-technical founders and general business people who have so internalized iOS’s premium positioning that they would never consider building on Android first (I certainly haven’t met any).
So, my recommendation to Google is to start telling a better story about Android, and to craft this story against the biggest pains that Android developers experience today. If they don’t, it will always be easier for people to assume that Android Second is good enough.
With any development team, you will always have a more familiar platform. This platform is your team’s bread and butter. You can make magic happen. No design or interaction is too hard. You feel infinite. You eke out morsels of performance by diving into system libraries and rewriting components.
And then there’s the other platform. This mystery platform monetizes poorly and is used by poor people. None of your friends use it. None of the tech press, the people who you want covering you, use it. It feels like it’ll take another thousand hours that went into designing and executing the original iOS application.
Seen in this light, we can empathize why we want to believe iOS-first is the best strategy. We don’t want to concede we’re pursuing a lesser strategy because it’s too hard. Cognitive dissonance is what leads tech CEOs to build arguments saying that going iOS-first is actually better for users. Your job as a tech leader is to hack the development process to make the difficult but valuable happen. I’d like to introduce what I call the “Fast Clone” strategy as a way to support both platforms while minimizing drag:
- Adopt iOS or Android as the primary innovation platform and the other as the laggard and make it institutionally clear. New features will always be experimented and tested on the innovation platform first.
- The main goal of this strategy is to minimize any platform-specific issues. The design that has been mastered once should be copied as closely as possible to the other.
- You should look specifically to hire a very strong in-house “cloner” (in fact, perhaps put that in the job description) as someone who can take a completed mobile app and duplicate interactions with high fidelity.
- The innovation platform team can focus on making magic happen without worrying about the follower platform. Because the dominant-recessive platform stance is official, it removes political clutter that might make it otherwise difficult.
We’re in a unique era where the bulk of effort is in design. Once the feature space has been explored and a winning execution found, actual implementation is a tiny fraction of the work. Savvy tech founders are well-advised to take advantage of this quirk in our craft.
There are four key pieces to explain why Android isn’t the platform of choice, shining some light on what changes need to happen for the platform to become truly viable:
1. Product/Market fit: if you’re building an app that enables an unproven use case (do people really want an Uber for Chicken Soup?) iOS will most often be a better place to start —there’s little platform fragmentation, better developer APIs and tools, a high value customer group with demonstrated willingness to pay, and a highly valuable audience for in-app advertising.
2. Geography: If you’re building an app for “mainstream” China, India or Indonesia, it probably makes sense to start on Android, or joint-launch today. If you’re trying to go after prestige users in those markets, then iOS still makes the most sense in that market… and that reasoning will probably hold for a while.
3. Network effects: Metcalfe’s Law matters. If every one of your friends need to use an app for it to be valuable, you’ve got to support both at or near the beginning. There was a time where iOS and Android usage fell into particular socioeconomic buckets. With premium Android phones, that’s no longer true, and I’ve got a lot of “green bubble” friends today.
4. Hardware: Right now each revision of hardware and OS introduces huge new capabilities. Apple’s ability to tightly couple the hardware, the OS, and the APIs for developers to take advantage of that hardware is unprecedented. Just look at Bluetooth Low Energy—it’s been available on iOS since the iPhone 4S, and Android penetration is pathetic even today. Things like Metal, TouchID, and perhaps 3rd party access to NFC are examples of things that Apple can enable much more easily and broadly than Android. For developers that are pushing the limits of the technologies being introduced today, iOS is a much more attractive platform, while Android continues to play catch up.