Mobile developers’ choice: money or flexibility

25 11 2008

One of the really exciting things that’s happening at the moment in the world of mobile handsets is the growth of several key platforms for mobile application development. Recently I had a chance to chat to the developer of a third-party email application for the iPhone, Android and Symbian. I thought I’d share some of the issues that he raised which affect the way developers choose which platforms to work on, and his comments about two of the most popular mobile application stores. Developers of mobile apps balance risk and reward when deciding where to invest their time and effort. If they want to make money, they’ll need to balance their chance of making a profit with the difficulty of producing an app and getting it onto users’ devices.

In this little post I’m just going to discuss two of the most headline-friendly platforms, the iPhone and Android, which take very different approaches to getting applications onto handsets.

Apple

Apple is well known for tightly controlling what gets onto its App Store, with no apps that compete with Apple’s own core apps or anything being sold by Apple’s carrier partners allowed (along with numerous other tough conditions). For example, a developer could spend months on an application, only to see it rejected because Apple has been developing a competing product in secret. The process for approving and publishing applications is slow (two weeks) and opaque (apps can be refused or removed without explanation, despite complying with the stated terms of the SDK Agreement). Pushing updates and bug fixes to end users is frustratingly slow.

Our contact admitted that if the iPhone wasn’t so successful at making money for developers (100 million apps downloaded in the first two months of the App Store is phenomenal), he probably wouldn’t bother with the iPhone at all – the process really is a headache. From an end-user point of view, Apple has nailed the App Store, and the ease of downloading, installation and billing is what drives the high volume of app downloads and makes the headaches worthwhile for developers.

Google

In contrast, Google’s approach with Android is much more open – as long as developers don’t violate the basic terms of the Android agreement (generally no scams, pr0n or illegal stuff) they’re good to go. Uploading apps to the Android Market is practically instant, and developers know they won’t be wasting their time as long as they adhere to the clearly stated conditions of the Android Distribution Agreement. So what’s the downside? Android hasn’t yet proven itself capable of making money for developers, it hasn’t got the market traction that Apple has, and there is uncertainty around the potential for device fragmentation. But with a company as big as Google backing the platform, I think a lot of developers will be happy to take the bet, even if only to keep Apple honest.

Anyway, I drew a diagram. If Android can prove itself and developers see they can make money producing applications for it, it will be interesting to see if Apple is forced to loosen the shackles. But Apple has a large and growing captive audience, is a proven money-maker and has its developers by the short and curlies, to some extent. Of course, I haven’t even mentioned the others: the platform with the largest market share in North America, RIM (also launching an App Store in early 2009); or the Symbian/S60 platform which has by far the largest global deployed base (several hundred million handsets worldwide) and widespread industry support; or the creaking Windows Mobile OS. Everyone’s getting in on the game, so I think it’s going to be interesting watching where the consumers, handset manufacturers and developers go over the next couple of years.

Mobile developers choosing between the iPhone and Android platforms have a tough decision between a proven revenue winner with tight restrictions, or an unproven platform with far fewer constraints.

Mobile developers choosing between the iPhone and Android platforms have a tough decision between a proven revenue winner with tight restrictions, or an unproven platform with far fewer constraints.

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