Monday, March 15, 2010

App Developers Are Ditching the iPhone

Via TechCrunch:

As Apple goes on the offensive against Android, it risks alienating more and more developers. Today, another prominent developer is chose the opposing side. Tim Bray, the well-known software architect and blogger, is joining Google to help rally even more developers around the Android mobile operating system.

Bray is the co-inventor of the XML Web standard, and most recently worked at Sun Microsystems. In a blog post, he explains that he is drawn to Google in part because he hates the iPhone, or at least its closed and controlling environment from a developer’s perspective.
Refusing to make apps for the iPhone is a puzzling move. The only relevant consideration for creating an iPhone app is whether the expected revenue will compensate for the costs of production. App developers are free to forsake the iPhone, but most of them would be losing money to do so.

Android apps and iPhone apps make poor substitutes. Once someone has made the hefty investment of buying a particular smartphone, they are very unlikely to switch for the sake of a few apps. If your app is unavailable, users will either buy close substitutes or go without.

Of course, the story changes completely if app developers leave the iPhone en masse, enabling Android to offer a superior app collection. But this would create quite the coordination problem, as it would require each developer to leave substantial money on the table in hopes that everyone else plays along too.


Adam Gurri said...

You think they'll be losing money by forsaking the iPhone platform? I highly doubt it.

The fact that there are so many other apps on the iPhone is a negative as far as an individual app developer is concerned, because not only is it more competition, but it makes it harder for your app to be noticed at all in the ocean of hundreds of thousands of other apps available.

Moreover, Android is a cross-hardware platform. So you won't just have iPhone users, but G1, Hero, Droid, Nexus One, and dozens and dozens of other phone users as well, and the number of phones it's on is only growing.

Josh Hattersley said...

Responding to Adam:

I don't doubt it. As it stands right now the Android app store is anemic by comparison to Apple's. There certainly are downsides to being inundated with apps, but the fact is that Android only commands 10% of the market whereas iPhone is holding steady at 25%. I wouldn't be surprised to see that gap close over time, probably from what I expect will be falling RIM sales, but in the meantime an Apple phone exposes you to a much larger userbase, and most indications point to the App Store being a good way for developers to get by. (And remember: the App Store also caters to iPod Touch users, which most data indicates is a bigger market than iPhones. Android has no device that feature-parallels the iPod Touch.)

Not to mention that, if you look at the Android App Store, it's a rather disorganized mess that actually places a large emphasis on free apps over paid apps. This doesn't mean you can't make money, and I hope Google will improve their store as time goes on, but stories like the aforelinked seem to be the exception rather than the rule at the moment.

Android is showing signs of becoming a strong developer alternative to the iPhone, but I don't believe it's to the point where you can switch from the Apple App Store as a developer and not feel the hurt.

To Greg:

You make a big assumption in stating that "the only relevant consideration for creating an iPhone app is whether the expected revenue will compensate for the costs of production," namely that economic considerations are the only things developers take into account. Many developers have made a conscious, ethical choice not to support the iPhone despite the economic benefits due to Apple's irregular and sometimes draconian App Store policies (or due to the closed nature of the iPhone, though this argument alone seems silly to me; but then, I'm not a freetard). Signs have been pointing to Apple getting better about these irregularities, but I wouldn't expect them to drop the walled garden approach anytime soon (word has it it's an order from on high direct from the Steve).

I also believe that, while some high profile developers have left the store, such acts are still the exception rather than the rule. There's simply too much economic downside to doing so for most, especially if you've already invested the time to create an app.

Josh Hattersley said...

Addendum: the fact that Android is spread across numerous different hardware devices, all running different versions of the OS, can also be a big downside for Android developers. With the iPhone you're targeting a highly controlled platform, one in which only a small number of device/OS permutations are possible. With Android you can't even be sure on things as basic as whether the device will have a hardware keyboard or not. This hasn't been all that relevant for the PC market, but the home PC is fairly standardized in terms of input and use conventions. Phones, by contrast, have a number of available input and use models, all of which an Android developer will have to take into account if he wishes to reach the widest audience possible.

Adam Gurri said...


All fair points. I'd like to respond to your comment you made to Greg:

"Many developers have made a conscious, ethical choice not to support the iPhone despite the economic benefits due to Apple's irregular and sometimes draconian App Store policies"

I would consider that an economic rather than an ethical choice. The fact that the app approval process takes longer and longer, and the fact that there's uncertainty about whether you'll suddenly be pulled out once you're in, are concerns that fall comfortably into the notion of opportunity cost and decreasing the expected returns, respectively.

IE you could have been doing something else during that approval process that theoretically could have earned you money, and the fact that there's a chance you may be pulled once you're in decreases the probability that you'll end up in the black.

Greg said...

I appreciate the good discussion.

Although profit may not motivate all app designers, it's certainly an important consideration, and the crucial one for corporations.

Also, maybe the type of app in question is the deciding factor. If you're making yet another version of solitaire, perhaps you should ignore the iPhone. But if you're Electronic Arts, perhaps making a Madden game for the iPhone is worthwhile.

Josh Hattersley said...

I agree that there are certainly economic issues that factor into the choice not to support the iPhone, and the ethical facets may well be subsidiary to concerns about app approval, app removal, and/or update delays (all of which have economic consequences). I still believe the ethical component is a strong secondary motivator for many of the high profile developers who have publicly left the app store, however.

Ultimately it comes down to control. There is no historical precedent that shows a walled garden approach to a creative market is sustainable, so I'm unsure as to how Apple's implementation will hold out in the long run, even if it seems to be (mostly) working at the moment.

Another problem is the software inundation previously discussed. I doubt any platform that uses some sort of App Store model will avoid this phenomenon, so it will come down to how each store chooses to deal with it. Currently even Android's relatively small app market feels messy and disorganized; improvements are being made (I just noticed they finally added a "Top Paid" category alongside the "Top Free" one), but it still feels a bit clunky. While Apple's design isn't perfect either, it does feel less cumbersome to navigate, and in most of my perusing the "good" apps have been easy enough to find. I suspect this will improve in the Android Market over time, BUT they have (arguably) much less economic incentive to invest a lot of resources into their market because, unlike Apple, Google has no revenue sharing agreement in place with its developers. Apple is pocketing 30% of all App Store profits, giving them a huge economic incentive to make sure their App Store maintains its appeal.

On the other hand, the lack of a revenue sharing agreement is likely a big draw for developers.

One of the nicer aspects of the Mac software market: most of the independent developers are relatively well-established, and searching for, say, an FTP application will tend to bring up a few very well designed and usable pieces of software. Compare this to the Windows indie market, or the Apple App Store market, and you see that the latter two present much more of a headache given the huge amount of available software (most of which is crap). With minimal research you can usually get a good feeling on what the "good" apps for a given platform are, but in a world where most users are probably entering their search terms and clicking on the first thing that shows up, it's definitely a problem.

Greg said...

Good points. My only quibble is that Google WOULD still have a huge interest in its app store, even if it's not taking a cut of the revenue, because the quality of the app store is a large part of the overall quality of the phone.