Mobile Nature :

Google’s App Store Achilles Heel, Few Apps -Eventually Few Phones

Much has been made of the open versus closed environment that is apps on the Android platform and the Apple iOS  platform. One with a seeming Opensource OS, multi handset environment and the other a proprietary operating system bound to a fixed set of devices.

These conversations can seem complicated and they are further muddled by the side debate of the virtues of Opensource versus proprietary platforms, but shouting and hyperbole will have little effect on the eventual economics of user experience.

In a previous essay, “Google Follows Microsoft Kin, Ends Nexus One -Lessons Learned?” I laid out the importance of a complete and integrated path to insure a quality user experience. From the first marketing mention, to building expectations and meeting them to confirm and establish brand. For a smartphone offering this is no minor challenge as it requires industrial design choreographed with interface, d a telecom carrier arrangement that can carry the load.

The last ‘invisible mile’ that connects the user to the device are applications. Not only does this give the user a sense of purpose for the mobile device, other than a phone call, but it establishes a relationship culture between device, user and apps. The key elements to execute are the tools developers need to create applications for the platform and an effective, low barrier sales and distribution mechanism for those applications. Without applications a smartphone is a very sophisticated and well designed brick.

The development community that avidly follows and promotes the Google Android platform has as their greatest rallying cry that the platform is opensource and thus has greater freedom. Few rules and little control attracts them to the Android platform, in opposition to the well controlled Apple App Store. They do not need to seek approval, they make their products as they see fit and distribute them in any manner and in any place they wish. Unfortunately, this matters very little to the user of who buys applications and uses the smartphone.

Making up the third leg of this environment, after developers and carriers, are the handset manufacturers. Left with little choice but to compete for their very existence against Apple’s iOS onslaught must have a common OS to match, Google is more than willing to help. They bore witness to the steep decline of Symbian due to its archaic nature and the failed efforts of Research in Motion with its flagship Blackberry to leverage itself beyond the two thumbs and message set.

Another common argument made by the Android contingent is that by having an open platform, many manufacturers and their many handsets, there is more choice for the customers of these mobile devices. This is, at best, a very stretched assumption with few lines connecting the points in the logic. Although all the big and major services are present: navigation, Skype, Facebook and Twitter apps, the choices come down to variations. Get the same apps on many different smartphones and carriers but there is no way the shear number and diversity of applications found in the Apple App Store.

The lack of control may make the developers happy but it may not delight the end user of a device and its applications. The sometimes onerous Apple app approval process may frustrate and unnerve many developers, as it often does me, but it also moderates the playing field. The iOS iPhone user can have a reasonable expectation of security, quality and reliability. This cannot be guaranteed on Android: apps have been discovered that are outright malware, interface is a hit and miss affair leaving the user to relearn conventions from app to app and there are many apps that appear to be incomplete or untested.

The bottom-line: the ease of use, low risk, clear choices and a large, established customer market via iTunes enables high sales for apps. According to Distimo and AppleInsider, developers from 9 countries can distribute apps in the Google Android Market, only customers from 13 countries can download paid apps out of the 46 countries that the service is available. In comparison, Apple connects App Store downloads iTunes Store accounts, now, well over 125 million customers.

In the first 24 months of the App Store Apple has reported $1 billion in app sales. The ratio of free apps to paid apps in each is startling, 28% of apps are free in the iTunes App Store while in the Google Android Market the number of free apps is 57%. Another way at looking at this situation comes from Fade. The average iPhone user spends $5.00 a month on apps while the typical Android user spends just 50 cents, on average, a month on apps.

If the culture of Android users is that they expect apps to be free, may be more than any other factor, the greatest threat to the Android environment. The fact that developers on Android are left with one business model, ad supported, may prove to be disastrous in the medium to longterm. If app developers cannot reasonably expect to sell apps then they are left with a Hobson’s Choice, as many applications may be of a type that advertising is inappropriate or unsuitable, what then? Herein lies the false freedom of the Android Opensource argument.

Eventually the novelty of developing apps for Android will wear off and the bottom line will rise to the top, developers have to support themselves. The triad of operating system, hardware and applications is immutable, it is a well established economical model. If there are fewer and fewer apps for the Android phones then the real choice, the user’s choice, may be limited.

Users want to make a device in their own image and they do this by having a rich selection of apps to choose from. Despite the current appearance of a large and growing acceptance of the Android platform an uncertain future may be ahead. A once rich and promising biome could become an arid and species poor desert.

Originally published in the Swiss online newspaper,, reedited for WholeThinking.

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