Just recently, Twitter launched an Alpha program for its Android app users. With the Twitter for Android Experiment, users get to enjoy bleeding edge features and functionalities that are not yet implemented in the mainstream release of the app.
Twitter Alpha also goes beyond the usual Beta program, which has been in place for some time now. According to the development team, the Alpha release will “include earlier iterations of experiments.” In short, Alpha users are going to be Twitter’s guinea pigs for determining which features work and what do not. What’s great here is that users can pitch in with their suggestions, complaints and feature recommendations. End-users are essentially collaborating with the developers in building features that will later on be baked right into the mainstream app.
Twitter is not alone in these experiments. Facebook has also launched an Alpha program for its Android app just a few weeks back. The Facebook for Android Alpha program works the same way as Twitter’s efforts. It is more bleeding-edge than the regular Beta release framework, in that users also get daily updates with experimental features and functionalities. Facebook does warn that the program is “not for the faint of heart,” however, as end-users can expect crashes and other untoward incidents when using the non-mainstream version of their app.
Of course, the program is limited to Android users, and is not currently open to end-users on the iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch because of the stricter requirements of Apple’s iTunes App Store. Google Play, on the other hand, gives developers more freedom to launch their applications, whether these are already perfected or simply experimental. Google actually encourages developers to do staged rollouts, while asking for user feedback when beta-testing their applications, and provides an avenue for users to easily opt-in to beta test versions from within Google Play itself.
With Android, it does not even have to involve Google Play, of course. Android smartphone and tablet users can easily sideload applications by directly installing the .APK. This is something that is not as easy to do on other platforms, like on iOS. Sure, users who have jailbroken their devices can install .IPA files, although this would often involve more complicated steps, like having to install using iTunes or through apps like IPAinstaller.
With this, then, Android can be considered a better platform for early adopters. App developers can simply do a daily (or even more frequent) release of their alpha or beta builds and easily distribute these to folks who want to be on the bleeding edge when it comes to features (these users will have to opt-in to the Beta or Alpha track, of course). In contrast iPhone users would have to wait a couple of weeks until app updates pass the usual stringent testing.
This brings us again to the question, however, whether app developers should build on Android first. The Android-first approach comes with structural and financial barriers, and this approach is said to be problematic, from the point of view of cash-strapped startups and app developers. With a lower return-on-investment and institutional support, are developers better off building for iOS first?
Perhaps the dynamics of resources will come into play here. iOS apps might be easier to monetize, although Google Play certainly gets developers a bigger potential audience, and a better potential for gaining early adopters. Android is, therefore, a better platform for getting to know what the user wants.