Good news, fellow app developers, we’re in the right business! Bad news, fellow Android developers, we’re developing for the wrong platform.
AppAnnie is a name many developers will recognize. They help mobile app developers for both iOS and Android track the usage habits of their users. Did a particular design increase user’s enjoyment of your app? Are users more likely to buy unlocked versions if you offer a longer or a shorter trial period? Who prefers ads and who prefers to pay to get rid of ads? How many people are using “version X” of this OS? Tracking your users helps you answer such questions, and helps app developers make a better product.
AppAnnie’s tracking has enabled them to look at global app downloads. Fortunately, across both Android and iOS, app downloads are up. People are more willing to pay for apps or content within their apps as well. However, despite Android having a large majority of the global market share, app developers still make far more money developing for iOS. Is Android a lost cause?
Apps vs Profits
Revenue for app subscriptions has grown 20% year over year, a promising sign for software development. As we move into an increasingly mobile world, people are still willing to pay for the quality apps they expect. App downloads on both platforms exceeded 175 billion, representing 60% growth over 2 years. In the previous quarter alone, Google Play downloads represented 19 billion app downloads. iOS app downloads accounted for only 8 billion. However, and this is the most telling statistic of all, iOS users are far more likely to pay for their apps and content. Of the $17 billion spent on apps over the last year, $11.5 billion went to iOS apps. Despite a larger market share and increased app usage, Android apps are generating a much smaller percentage of revenue for developers. It seems Android users just aren’t willing to pay for apps.
I’ve worked in app development for a few years, bouncing back and forth between iOS and Android. I’m an iOS user who works on Android apps (one of my coworkers is a mirror image, an Android user on the iOS team). I’ve seen the struggles of development on both platforms. I truly believe that app purchases comes down to low consumer confidence. This comes from three core issues with Android: fragmentation, upgrade cycles, and security. I believe there’s also another problem, besides a lack of user confidence, and that’s an economic one.
Fragmentation Kills Confidence
I hate fragmentation. When you constantly have to develop for the lowest common denominator, you constantly have to pull back app quality. People are more willing to trust apps that have a nice level of polish. High resolution graphics, smooth animations, and—most importantly—no bugs tell a user that an app is reliable. You can spend your money here. It’s the same in the real world. Which would you rather, a dirty doctor’s office with dim lighting, or a brightly lit clean office with friendly staff? App design and quality is probably as important if not more important than actual features when it comes to monetization.
Fragmentation means Android developers have to constantly develop features for multiple devices. We have vector graphics and bitmap representations at different resolutions for older phones. Developers forgo slick animations that can’t be done on older devices. We don’t use the latest APIs and Java versions because we’d have to drop devices older than Android 5.0. These are all issues we face that hold Android app development back. We can’t do our best work because devices that are just one or two years old are already on older operating systems that won’t be updated. Unlike Apple, which has nearly universal adoption of their latest OS a year after release, and supports older devices with updates for many years, Android devices are often forgotten by their manufacturers a year after they’re released. If your Android phone is more than a year and a half old, chances are, you’re not on the latest OS and likely never will be. In fact, even at the same age, iOS adoption is hundreds of times faster than Android adoption.
Imagine using your device, paying for a service, and then finding out that your device is incompatible with an app or service you’ve paid for.
There’s also a variety of customizations manufacturers do to their Android devices. Samsung’s TouchWiz, for example, makes Samsung devices much different from Google’s Pixel phones or HTC’s phones. Even Moto devices, which have a “near stock” Android experience are woefully behind on updates. We’re already looking at the next version of Android and Motorola (Lenovo) hasn’t even upgraded devices to the last one yet. These customizations mean some features will work on some devices, but not others. Imagine using your device, paying for a service, and then finding out that your manufacturer’s version of Android makes your device, and only your particular model, incompatible with an app or service you’ve paid for. This is a very real reality for Android developers and users. If you can’t trust that your phone will be updated, that the app will keep working, or that the app isn’t a sketchy waste of money, why would you pay for anything?
Low and Mid-Range Devices
With more mid-range and low-end phones coming from Android, people who simply can’t afford to “waste” money on apps are buying these devices. Think about it, a person who gets a free Android phone with their cellular service is likely to be a person who either doesn’t have a lot of money to spend or prefers to spend their money on non-technological items. Maybe they’re older and just need a smartphone to talk to their grandkids (who, let’s face it, suck at communicating outside of a device). Maybe they’re trying to support a family on a small paycheck and worry more about the cost of groceries and the gas and electric bill than whether or not they can buy the coolest mobile games or subscribe to a video on demand service like Netflix. Basically, because Android devices are more likely to cost less than iOS devices, Android devices are more likely to be purchased by (or given away to) people with tighter budgets who place digital goods on a lower importance rating than those who have more disposable income.
Android: The Least Secure Mobile OS
Most mobile malware is created on Android. Since Android makes it easy to download apps from third party app stores, and because apps on the Google Play store aren’t as vetted as the iOS App Store, malware can often go undetected on the platform. Thanks to fragmentation and few updates, Android devices are often exposed to old vulnerabilities. Although new Android phones are able to receive security updates from Google with little delay, older devices are reliant on manufacturers. Android Manufacturers don’t want to waste resources on older devices that aren’t making them money. They believe the people who care the most about security issues are more likely to be on a more aggressive upgrade cycle anyway. Why bother supporting users who won’t realize their security has been compromised?
The problem with this is that users feel as though they’re always on guard when using Android. They must always be diligent. As a result, when an app asks for money, or their credit card information, even if it’s through Google Play, they’re inherently suspicious. A suspicious person is less likely to hand their money over.
What Can We Do?
As app developers, our choices are limited. Really, this is on Google to make Android less customizable for manufacturers (keep customization for users), and work to improve security. If manufacturers can’t change as much from the core Android experience, then they can update their customizations for new operating systems easier. Abstraction is key here, keep the core of Android hidden away, allowing manufacturers only slightly higher access to the way Android operates than that of third party app developers. Due to the open source nature of Android, there’s nothing stopping a manufacturer from creating a fork, and making their own version but Google could work to rein them in at a policy level, perhaps by asserting that they must support at least 2 years worth of devices with updates in order to use Google services if they’re selling a device with their own flavor preinstalled. The market has been moving in this direction anyway, with more manufacturers relying on a more “stock” Android experience, but they could use a push when it comes to updates.
Companies that make apps can increase the size of their Android development teams, they could focus more on improving quality than new features, on polish and good design rather than a feature list, and be willing to throw out support for older devices more rapidly. Google should support this by allowing users to download older versions of apps directly from Google Play that support their OS and device, rather than a “one size fits all” approach. Most of the effort here still has to come from Google though, because even apps with perfect quality and features will have to fight against the stigma created by other Android app developers and Android smartphone manufacturers. The best way for Google to help us in this uphill struggle is to make Android easier to upgrade, allow more app versions to be served up by Google Play automatically, and by forcing manufacturers to support older devices with OS updates. The fault of Android fragmentation and low consumer confidence lies more on Google than any Android app developer or even Android device manufacturers. If Google wants people to trust their platform, they’re going to have to put more work into it.