A high profile VC and a well-known mobile application developer were recently involved in a debate about whether to build for Android or Apple mobile platforms. The answer it turns out is, it depends, or both, or simply build for the mobile browser.
App developers and companies have different goals, so why follow the same advice
Well respected VC, Fred Wilson, principal of Union Square Ventures, has previously suggested that developers interested in the largest user base should invest as much, if not more, in developing for Android as they do for iOS. Wilson justifies his recommendation by looking back at the desktop operating system market. Wilson writes, “I believe the mobile OS market will play out very similarly to Windows and Macintosh, with Android in the role of Windows.”
Countering Wilson’s advice is Marco Arment, founder of Instapaper and former lead developer of Tumblr. Marco suggests developers need to keep a closer eye on development economics, degree of fragmentation, payment integration, and the willingness of users to pay for applications or extensions on a given mobile OS platform.
Marco’s advice is likely to resonate with individual developers hoping to directly monetize their mobile application either through selling the application or through in-application purchases. Over time however, one shouldn’t bet against Android closing the gap versus Apple along the lines of development economics, payment ease of use and fragmentation.
It remains to be seen whether Apple’s platform can continue to generate higher application and in-application purchase revenue for developers even while Android boasts the #1 mobile OS by unit share. Today, the App Store revenue gap between Apple and all other mobile platforms is striking.
On the other hand, a company that sells goods or services which are exposed through the mobile application, but does not monetize the application itself, needs to pay more attention to Wilson’s advice. If the vast majority of a bank or retailer’s prospective users are going to use an Android device, the company had better offer a compelling user experience on that platform.
But why choose between developing for Android or Apple?
Build mobile web browser applications
It’s somewhat amazing to watch companies that don’t rely on directly monetizing their mobile application invest in native mobile applications for iOS or Android. In a rush to be the first to market, companies optimized for a device rather than following the cross-platform and cross-browser web application strategy they’ve used for the better part of a decade.
For instance, if TweetDeck, which is best known for its thick-desktop client, can see the light and deliver the same user experience in a web-browser across desktop and mobile devices, chances are your company’s web application can evolve into a mobile web browser application without paying the cost of device-specific implementations.
The key element of TweetDeck’s announcement is that “TweetDeck Web, however, is a standalone web site and requires no downloads, no App Stores and is not limited to any one brand of web browser.”
No App Stores is a win for the browser
The “no App Stores” angle obviously has its pros and cons. However, unlike individual developers, companies that aren’t monetizing the mobile app itself don’t need to rely on an App Store to attract users. They already have users and other processes to attract new users. Their users simply want to interact with these companies through mobile devices. Putting the company’s web application into an App Store adds extra hurdles for users and for the company when it comes to fixing defects or updating the application with new features.
If users begin to rely more on App Stores and less on the Internet itself for finding new vendors of goods or services, being in the App Store of choice will become as important as being listed in Google’s web index. But we’re years away from this scenario becoming reality, if ever. In the short to medium term, established companies can well address new and existing customers through a mobile web browser application.
It’s strange that Google hasn’t recognized the mobile browser-based application opportunity and is instead attempting to replicate Apple’s App Store strategy. The browser undermines the value of the underlying OS. And since Google doesn’t much care to profit from the underlying OS or the device, unlike Apple, they should be encouraging companies to build mobile web applications, not device-native applications. Google should be indexing and promoting these mobile web browser-based applications.
Consider cross-device frameworks as a step towards standard browser applications
For individual developers and companies that need to be an App Store, or want to access more of the device native capabilities, such as the camera or GPS, then evaluate the various cross-device frameworks previously covered on Open Sources. For instance, PhoneGap already has an impressive list of cross-device native feature support. Using a framework such as PhoneGap, and their build service could make it easier, faster and cheaper to build applications for Android and iOS, instead of having to decide which platform to prioritize.
Over time, standards will emerge to access core mobile device capabilities, such as the camera or contact list, in a cross-device fashion. Whether this occurs through defacto standards around a framework such as PhoneGap, or a formal standards body efforts is unclear. Maybe Google will smarten up and realize they have more to gain by spearheading this initiative than trying to play Apple’s App Store game.
If the past decade has taught us anything, it’s that the browser is the application runtime that matters most. Build for the browser.