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Should app developers build for Android first?

Android Army

Android is, to date, the most popular mobile platform, both in numbers and in growth. And with development outfits starting to focus on a mobile-first approach, one might wonder whether this also translates to an Android-first approach in developing applications.

And yet even if Android had an install base of hundreds of millions, the fact is that some developers still choose to launch initially on the competing platform — namely iOS — first, before eventually porting their applications over to Android. What could be the reason for this paradox in Android app development?

Steve Cheney, in a blog post, postulates why the Android first approach is a myth, and he goes on to give a few major points as to why developers would build their applications for iOS as the primary platform, due to constraints in the Android platform at the engineering and financing levels.

“Android-first” faces structural and financial barriers which are unlikely to be overcome. iOS will remain the primary platform that startups develop for regardless of how much more quickly Android grows share.

We can break it down to a few major concerns.

Return on investment

With application development mainly a business concern, developers would, of course, want to focus on how well they can recoup the investment and effort they put into the product they are building. Even as Andriod has a nominally bigger install base, analysts have determined that iOS is still the more profitable platform.

A recent study by Nanigans, for instance, has determined that the return on investment (RoI) from iOS users on average is about 179 times higher than the RoI from the average Android user. And this is just from ads displayed on the mobile Facebook platform. Extend this into premium apps, in-app purchases and other means of revenue, iOS would trump Android in sheer earning potential.

Now the other side of the equation is cost. It’s understood that iOS gets developers potentially more return per user, on average. But development on Android might also be more expensive. Cheney even gives an example that a development team needs two Android developers for every iOS developer. The issue of fragmentation is also raised: “This is due to a multitude of reasons: less sophisticated tools, generally more cumbersome APIs, fewer exposed advanced features, enormous QA issues brought on by fragmentation, etc.”

Institutional support

Meanwhile, yet another big consideration here is support from institutional investors, an influence especially important for venture-backed technology startups that need to prove their mettle with the ones who hold the purse strings. In this regard, the typical series A round funding might not be enough capital to include the costs of developing on two platforms. Given this, founders tend to focus on the primary platform, in order to be able to raise enough resources for a succeeding round of financing, during which they will work on catering to the secondary platform.

Granted, startups and development teams should not always have to kowtow to the whims of their investors. But when business matters are at stake, then whoever holds the money would usually want to have the last say in things.

Market preference and response

On top of development costs and considerations, another reason for developers to flock to iOS is the availability of tools and big data to support development. This metric, of course, follows the consideration that investors would want to put in more money into development teams that can prove their profitability.

Extending this into one’s potential market, a developer’s audience would also display differences, depending on geography and demographic. In emerging markets, for example, users are expected to have lower budgets for devices and apps. In established markets, one would expect users to have a more mature preference, bigger budgets for mobile data, and a higher likelihood of spending more on making in-app purchases.

Again, the so-called Android engagement paradox comes into play here. While Android continues to gain user count and market share, user engagement — including ad-related actions, usage and activity — do not necessarily increase.

Steve argues that for many technology firms, iOS is the go-to platform when building applications. “Startups simply cannot afford to bypass iOS and go Android out of the gate.”

Should this be a big concern for the Android community?

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