Why is Android Still the Second Platform Developers Work On?

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Every year we see the same promise: this is the year that Android-first development will become a reality. At the same time we see big companies like Instagram repeatedly introduce new apps that are iOS-only. Android has been able to tout more market share than iOS for quite some time, but that doesn’t seem to have translated into app developers releasing Android apps at the same time as their iOS counterparts, much less Android-first. Over the past few weeks I’ve been talking with developers and researching why this is still the case.

Limited Resources

We see example after example of apps and new features launching on iOS before Android from large companies like Instagram, Facebook, Nike, and even Google. Usually these companies can’t claim that they don’t have the resources or enough potential users of their product, but what about smaller independent developers?

NeuBible is a Bible app from Kory Westerhold and Aaron Martin. NeuBible entered a relatively crowded market of Bible apps on iOS, many of which are free. I don’t know if NeuBible will be a financial success, but I can say that within seconds of using the app it became my default Bible app on iOS. The one word that precisely describes my experience with the app: delightful.

NeuBible, like so many other apps, launched on iPhone first, but unlike many other apps, came with a promise to come to Android soon. Westerhold says that he and Martin had planned on releasing NeuBible for iPhone, iPad, and Android, but the massive costs of development forced them to start with iPhone only (the duo actually paid for the app’s development out of their own pockets – a testament to how passionate they are about the app!).

Westerhold was quick to point out that NeuBible didn’t launch iPhone first because he doesn’t like Android. Quite the contrary; he actually thinks NeuBible’s aesthetic fits Lollipop even more than it does iOS 8 and loves using the Nexus 6 and Moto 360. Despite his love for Android, he and Martin were hesitant to launch on Android first:

“Everything we’ve read, every number we’ve seen shows that it’s really difficult to get people to pay for apps on Android. We didn’t think we could release a paid app on Android and create something sustainable enough to fund further development.”

Westerhold isn’t the only developer concerned about the costs associated with Android development. Dave Feldman, co-founder of Emu, a third party messaging app, actually bucked the trend of iOS first and launched Emu on Android in late 2012. By April of 2014 Emu was pulled from the Play Store and launched on iOS. Developing Emu for Android hit a lot of issues working with SMS/MMS, dealing with Eclipse, and, of course, device fragmentation.

Feldman told TechCrunch, “We were finding Android in general to be a slower platform to move on. There’s more time spent dealing with fragmentation bugs. There’s more time spent dealing with testing and debugging, and we would rather spend that time building new functionality.”

According to Feldman issues they faced with fragmentation were particularly perplexing:

“On a Galaxy S4 with Samsung’s Multi-Window feature enabled, Emu’s popup windows are squished by the keyboard. This doesn’t happen on the Galaxy S4 sold by Google, without Samsung’s software modifications; or with the Multi-Window feature on the Galaxy S3. We’ve investigated, but because it relates to Samsung-specific functionality, we probably can’t fix it without direct cooperation from them.”


“On some Galaxy Nexus phones, when you’re listening to Pandora and get a notification sound from Emu, Pandora’s volume drops. This doesn’t happen with other apps’ notifications, nor does it happen with streaming apps other than Pandora, nor does it happen on any other device.”

Cameron Henneke, the developer behind GQueues, had a very different experience than the folks developing Emu. GQueues was originally just a web app, but in 2013 Henneke released iOS and Android apps. While Henneke had some previous experience developing games on iOS, this was his first Android app. So of course there was a huge learning curve and massive fragmentation issues that made him curse Andy Rubin, right? It turns out Henneke managed to develop the Android version faster than the iOS version (about 870 hours to develop the Android version versus 960 hours on the iOS version).

So what can we conclude from these very disparate results? Depending on the kind of app you’re making it might be far more difficult to launch on Android, or it might actually be easier. There are enough variables between funding, the size of the team, skill set, etc. that make it impossible to say developing for iOS first makes sense for everyone, but it certainly might make sense for a small team with limited funding.

Is it really that easy to make money on the App Store?

One of the big reasons often cited for app developers going to iOS first is that the App Store is where the money is. Android users are cheap and iOS users can’t stop spending money on apps, right? That idea has certainly been promulgated by plenty of people and it certainly has been backed up by analysts, but is it really that easy to make money on the App Store?

The economy of the App Store appears to be in flux. Independent developers are finding it more difficult to make enough money on the app store to sustain development, even with plenty of good press about the app. The race to the bottom for pricing apps is beginning to take its toll, forcing independent developers to adjust their monetization model.

Independent developer Marco Arment’s apps Instapaper and Overcast are fantastic examples of what pricing models used to work in the App Store and what the reality is today. When Arment first launched Instapaper on the App Store in 2008 he sold it for $9.99. On July 16th, 2014 Arment released Overcast, his third major iOS app. Overcast is available for free with a $5 in-app purchase to unlock features like Smart Speed and Voice Boost. Arment said the following about making Overcast free with IAP:

“I’m not that confident in the market for a paid-up-front app anymore, especially because I wanted to charge a good price for it. … If I launched today in the App Store I’m sure my day one sales at $5 would be decent, but, first of all, I know I got way more people [to try my app with] this model than I would have with [the paid up front] model. Second of all, I know over time that [the paid up front model] would be very hard to sustain because once the initial PR is over, and once all your friends and all your blog readers have bought it, and once everyone who’s going to write about it has written about it, then the sales of every app just tail off like crazy. They just drop. If you look at the graph it looks like a roller coaster. … If your app is paid up front that happens faster and it happens more severely.

“I’ve seen this happen. Instapaper was that model the entire time I owned it. It’s still that model today. I know that model very well. … I also know that in today’s App Store in a competitive category where I don’t even have the most features and people are very, very picky with what they want and what they don’t want, I knew that a $5 paid up front app was not a good long-term solution. … I saw with Instapaper there were so many people who I would come in contact with (in real life even, even family friends) … still using Instapaper Free, even two years after I discontinued it. There are so many people who … don’t pay for apps.”

Jared Sinclair, developer of apps like Riposte for App.net, Timezones, and Unread, faced these market pressures in particular with Unread. Unread was a well designed iOS RSS reader that launched at the sale price of $2.99 before being raised to $4.99. Sinclair worked tirelessly on the app: “I estimate that I worked sixty to eighty hours a week every week from July 2013 up until the launch of Unread for iPhone Version 1.0 in February 2014.” The app was covered by prominent Apple blogs and was even featured in the App Store. Despite the great coverage, hard work, and great app, Sinclair only made about $21,000 after taxes and expenses. Eventually Sinclair decided to sell Unread. His latest app, Time Zones, is free on the App Store with advertisements, though a $4.99 in-app purchase makes Time Zones ad-free.

John Gruber of Q Branch (and, of course, Daring Fireball and The Talk Show) recently opened up about why he and his colleagues raised the price for Vesper, the note taking app that I’m using to write these very paragraphs. Vesper launched in the summer of 2013 for $4.99, but had been on sale for $2.99 from the summer of 2014 until this winter. With the release of iPad support for Vesper Q Branch decided to raise the price to $9.99. John Gruber explained the pricing change, saying:

“Put another way, we’re going to charge something sane or die trying. We tried following the iOS App Store trend by pricing Vesper at just $2.99 for months. It didn’t work. Prices like that are not sane, and not sustainable, at least for well-crafted productivity apps. So Q Branch is drawing a line in the sand, and we hope other iOS developers will follow.”

These developers are attacking the same problem from different perspectives. Arment and Sinclair saw the trend in the App Store towards free with in-app purchase and adapted the pricing models for Overcast and Time Zones accordingly. Q Branch, on the other hand, is trying to reverse the trend. Both models are compelling, and more importantly, both models point to the realities we’ve seen on the Play Store for some time.

What Kinds of Apps Are Successful on Android?

While Android may not be known for being the platform that many developers work on first, it is a platform that has a vibrant development community with plenty of developers that are able to make a living from their Android apps. The key is finding the right app category and the right business model.

AgileBits is a great example of a developer that was primarily Apple focused, but recently brought 1Password to Android in full force. To be clear, AgileBits had an Android version of 1Password as far back as 2010, but the app only allowed users to read their usernames and passwords, not add any new credentials (or any of their other more advanced features). The app stayed in that condition for almost four years before being relaunched in the summer of 2014 with a complete redesign to better match Android’s aesthetic and add full functionality to the app.

“We wanted the app to be accessible to everyone,” says CEO Jeff Shiner. “We know many people have multiple devices on different platforms. We want them to be able to secure their passwords everywhere from an app that feels like 1Password, but that also feels native to the platforms they use, whether they be OS X, Windows, iOS, or Android.”

Part of making the app accessible to everyone meant AgileBits changing their monetization strategy. Starting with their Android release AgileBits made 1Password completely free to use with a one time $9.99 in-app purchase to unlock pro features (the iOS app soon followed suit with the same pricing strategy). Users are able to try the premium features in the app for 30 days before it reverts to read-only functionality.

The most famous example of a developer succeeding on Android is Shifty Jelly. Shifty Jelly, which is behind the popular podcast client Pocket Casts, hasn’t been successful on Android just recently either. Way back in December of 2011 Shifty Jelly’s Russell Ivanovic reported that the company was making the majority of their sales for Pocket Casts on Android. By 2013 Ivanovic reported that Pocket Casts had sold 5 copies on Android for every copy they sold on iOS.

What made Pocket Casts successful on Android where other apps have failed? I think the major reason is that Shifty Jelly made a killer podcast app on a platform that was in desperate need of a decent podcast app. Google provided Listen for a few years before discontinuing it in late 2012. Listen was never a good podcast app, but it was good enough to get the job done. Pocket Casts, on the other hand, was a great podcast app and has continued to iterate and improve to the point where I consider it to be the only podcast app to consider on Android.

The other reason I think Pocket Casts was successful is that it is sold for a fair price. Though that price has shifted over the years, it was high enough to support development and the expansion of Shifty Jelly’s team, but low enough that it seems reasonable to many. Pricing is always a tremendously difficult part in releasing and selling an app and Shifty Jelly did well in this regard.

Shifty Jelly shows that there is absolutely a market for paid apps on Android, but you have to make something that people want and sell it at a fair price. Determining those factors is incredibly difficult, but that’s been the reality on iOS and Android for years now. The days of selling software for $50 are gone. Freemium and cheap paid apps are here to stay as are the millions of users for each platform.

Does it really matter?

For smaller development teams the cost of supporting Android up front may be prohibitive, but there is simply no excuse for large companies like Facebook who have large development teams and effectively endless resources to bring their products to both platforms simultaneously. Companies like Shifty Jelly make it clear that success can be found on the Play Store just like it can be found on the App Store, but developers for both ecosystems need to be cautious with pricing in order to maintain enough income to continue development.

But what about for users? Does it really matter that Android users tend to get apps later than iOS users? This is a tough question to answer because it varies by experience and priorities. Having lived on iOS for the past four years I can say that I’ve enjoyed having access to pretty much every app I want, but I also can’t think of many apps that I can’t get on Android. I can, however, think of plenty of features and options that I can’t get on iOS.

While it’s not an intended compromise, I do think that is the compromise users have to consider. What’s more important to you: having the latest apps first or having the best features first? Most of Android’s best features eventually make it over to iOS and most of iOS’ best apps eventually make it over to Android too, so which do you want first?



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