Our feature this week is from Scott Weiner, Dad developer over at Weiner Family Studios and creator of the hit travel app Family Matters. He and his family worked as a team to create a game-changing app that made ranks on the iTunes App Store. I’m not surprised. His dedication to family values, innovative technology, charitable contributions and team collaboration has topped all of our charts. Enjoy reading his insights on the great Apple vs. Android debate. If you are considering multi-platform support for your mobile apps, Scott’s article is a good place to start.
I started developing iPhone applications about a year ago because of an idea my wife had. She knew I liked to program as a hobby, and that my kids loved the iPod touch. She thought we should combine the two and involve the family in a project. The result was our first commercial iPhone app called Family Matters, which spent a few weeks on top of the iTunes travel chart and was a great overall experience.
In January 2010 it was time to get a new phone. I was considering the iPhone, but my company plan is on Verizon. I decided to get an Android phone and considered the possibility of porting my app to that platform.
My wife and I decided we would each get an Android phone and evaluate them as both phones and parenting tools. We spent a week with each of the available Android phones (Motorola Droid, Nexus ONE, HTC Eris, etc.) and ended up with the HTC Eris. We created evaluation criteria for what we thought was important as both developers and parents (the target audience for our apps).
As developers we were concerned with:
- Size of market
- Multi-device and OS support issues
- Supportive marketplace
- Quality and pricing of the applications in the marketplace
As parents we were concerned with:
- Ease of use of the phone
- Variety and cost of family-oriented applications
- Ability to assess and find applications good for our family
- Ease of upgrading the applications
- Parental controls
Our findings on Android from a developer perspective
Size of Market
Every developer wants to make sure they have a large enough market for profitability. Even if you have a free app, you want to be sure that enough people will appreciate your offering. Recent data indicates Android ships 60,000 apps per day and Apple ships 97,000 apps per day. This is really good news (see “Comparing Android Phone Shipments With iPhone, BlackBerry”). Note: I don’t know if this includes iPods and iPads. I suspect it doesn’t but Android’s numbers are still good.
Multi-device and OS Support Issues
One concern we had was that the Android might behave differently on various phones, meaning developers need to support a variety of phone implementations and hardware. From our perspective this is a weakness of the platform. Variety of phones and OS implementations might be good for consumers, but it is troubling and costly for small developers.
By “supportive marketplace” I mean a shopping experience that allows consumers to find our application, and a platform that encourages people to purchase the applications. Even though the Android Marketplace may be a tenth of the size of the iPhone App Store, it is still large and growing. We want to know that people can locate our application and have the information they need to make a purchasing decision quickly and easily.
When we first tried the Android Marketplace it was an awful experience. Searching would often not locate apps even when we typed the exact name. Furthermore, we could search on the same term and actually get different results – bizarre. The categories were almost meaningless and there was no way to filter by paid or free. Since the update to 2.1 on our Eris, the market has improved. The categories are more helpful and the buying process is pretty easy on the phone.
However, the lack of an iTunes Store equivalent has proven to be a big deal for us. In January we were on Apple’s “What’s Hot” list, and through informal surveys we found that large numbers of the parents found us not on their phone but from the larger pictures on their computer via the iTunes App Store “What’s Hot” promotion. iTunes is such a centerpiece of media management for users of any of Apple’s products that it becomes an effective marketing tool as well. Unfortunately, there is no equivalent experience on Android so we have to hope the phone experience is sufficient to encourage people to try new applications.
One other concern is it doesn’t feel like anyone is at the wheel. iTunes App Store has What’s Hot, Staff Picks, New & Noteworthy, and Apps for Kids sections. So as a developer of family apps I feel like there is a chance that if I produce a quality product Apple’s marketing machine may support me. Not only do I have a shot at a front-and-center promotion on the App Store but my app could end up in a television commercial (yeah that’ll happen).
That brings me to a personal gripe – the commercials. Apple advertises their phone and ultimately their OS as a way of getting things done. Many of their commercials have messages that resonate with my target audience of parents (See Apple’s Family Man Commercial). The only Android commercials I have seen are techie appeals for openness by Google (see Android Commercial) and ones from Motorola/Verizon showing off a giant robot arm taking over the world with a Droid (I couldn’t locate the “Droid Does” commercial online but you know the one). I don’t have a clue who they are advertising to but I know it isn’t helping me sell an application that promotes family communication or stimulating my audience.
Quality and Pricing
Why should I care about the quality of other applications and their pricing? As a parent I know that if the majority of the apps are garbage then I am going to stop looking for good value and ultimately not bother buying or even downloading free ones. Overall the quality of the Android marketplace is OK, but the lack of consistency in this “open” platform leaves me uncertain.
I also care about price because if great apps are given away at bargain basement prices, then the market has set a low value on them. In the Android marketplace there are a lot of free apps so the expectation for FREE is high. I’m hopeful this is just a short-lived issue for developers. There are some really great apps already on this platform so I think this will just get better.
Piracy is a fact of life on every platform. What I want is some level of control so honest people stay honest. I expect some level of piracy and don’t consider this a platform issue. On the iPhone, however, you have to jailbreak to pirate and you need a tool and some level of technical expertise. This restricts the number of pirates to a small fraction of the population. There is no such restriction on the Android platform. I was amazed how easy it is to pirate on the platform and how rampant it is already. You don’t need special versions; you don’t need special software; you don’t need special skills. I can’t see any reason why every developer shouldn’t expect a much larger percentage of their application copied illegally. This is somewhat demoralizing for a small developer.
Our findings from a parent’s perspective
As a parent and owner of two Android phones I’m also interested in how the platform will work for my family. I appreciate the quality, variety, and easy installation of iPhone apps. I’m hoping to see similar value from Android so it becomes a viable tool for us to entertain, educate and communicate when we are mobile as a family.
Ease of use
The ease of use issue for us matters because if the phone is complicated it won’t get used for anything but making calls. As developers, we need you to love using the phone and its various capabilities. I’ll start by saying this: Android is no iPhone. We actually had the same experience on all Android phones, not just Eris. However, if you feel it may be less controversial to focus solely on our phone that is OK with me. There may be a dozen ways you can say that Android is technically better than iPhone, but when it comes to simplicity and comfort and an “it just works” feeling, Android isn’t even close in our experience. The number of hours we had to spend to customize and configure and research to get this to feel comfortable was astounding. What this means to us is that parents may get this phone and potentially lose interest in downloading apps. For us it just isn’t as addictive as the iPhone experience.
Another weakness we found is ironically one of the most touted strengths of Android: multitasking. One of the big claims to fame for Android has been the idea you can run multiple apps at once. For us what this means in a practical sense is if you are trying to do one thing there may be something in the background running which can slow down the phone, or pop up unexpectedly, or fail to quit properly. Many times I went to hang up a call and it took several seconds for the call to quit because of something running in the background. For the non-technical user it makes the experience unpredictable and less enjoyable.
Android is alright for ease of use, but not great. We know the best thing we can do is make sure our app is considerate of the multitasking environment. We expect iPhone 4.0 multitasking support may introduce some of the same issues. The possible difference, I suspect, is that Apple will require a certain amount of compliance with what they consider good practices, and Android will most likely stay the “Wild West” for some time.
Variety and Cost
As a parent I want a variety of applications to choose from. Competition is great for me and encourages me to see “what’s new”. Although Android is increasing its volume of apps, trying to find quality apps for my family is still difficult. Many apps don’t have pictures on the marketplace so you don’t even know what it looks like before you buy it. The family categories don’t seem well organized, so I found it a little difficult to find the apps. This is great news for MomsWithApps and other websites that help people discover those gems that the marketplace doesn’t highlight.
Cost of apps is on the low side which is great for parents but I did feel like there is still a lot of experimentation going on. I would find two apps for first grade math and one was .99 and one was 2.99 and I couldn’t see any difference in the quality. I think the market will sort these price issues out over time as it has on the App Store.
Ability to Assess Apps
One of the most difficult things for a parent to do is figure out which apps are really good for their family before purchasing them. Personally I do the following:
- Read reviews
- Look at screenshots
- See what other apps parents purchased
- Check out review sites if it is an expensive app
All of these are possible with the Android market, but many of the apps don’t have screenshots, which can deter a purchase.
Ease of upgrade
One thing we have learned from the iPhone is that upgrading is key. Apps that upgrade often are considered “better value” assuming the upgrades include features and not just bug fixes. If the upgrade process isn’t smooth, a user will view upgrades as a burden, which could cause support headaches for developers too.
The general flow of upgrading an Android app is similar to the iPhone: a user views the app in the marketplace, sees which ones have upgrades available, and clicks the upgrade button. But from my experience the updates didn’t always happen, and there was no indicator of a problem.
If I had multiple apps to update it was much worse. First, there is no “update all”, so updating each individual app was necessary. One time I had 15 apps that had updates. That was not fun. It almost turned me off to the platform altogether – it was that frustrating.
As an aside, the whole install process needs some work. Once you install an app it does not appear in your workspace, so you have to locate it in the list and then manually place it. This adds a lot of steps and reduces overall usability. Deleting an app also lacks refinement. To delete an app you have to locate it in the settings and then delete it. This might add about 4-6 additional steps based on our typical usage patterns. I am much less likely to try an app if it is going to be a hassle to get rid of if I don’t like it. This means as a developer I believe I will get fewer casual users. Small things like this add up. They really need to improve the install/upgrade/delete process so updates are seen as a good thing and not something to dread.
Parental control is currently a very weak area on Android. On the iPhone I can control what content is downloadable, what major apps are allowed to run, even what type of music can be loaded. In addition, Apple restricts a ton of inappropriate content so I don’t have to worry as much. As far as I can tell there is nothing like this built into Android. I feel like I have to scrutinize every single app and can never let my kids make an impulse download or purchase. This will drastically restrict my family buying habits.
Writing an article like this is bound to rile some people who are advocates or invested in one platform or another. My goal was to evaluate if this platform was right for me and then share my observations in the hopes they may prove useful to others. I would love to hear about the exeriences of others. I also realize that the Android platform keeps evolving and new phones are coming out all the time. Even while writing this article we saw some better phones appear like the HTC Incredible (and of course iPhone 4.0 is coming).
Overall the Android developer outlook is good. It’s a growing market and a powerful platform. I don’t think the market support for small developers is great right now and I am hoping they will improve this. It doesn’t mean it isn’t a good opportunity, but it seems there is less chance of getting noticed right now.
As a parent I’m less optimistic. I think for the time being I will stick to using my iPod for kids’ games and educational tools, while using my Eris for calls, business needs and occasional entertainment. I’m put off some by the lack of parental controls but mainly I just find the app management to be too cumbersome and don’t want to waste time customizing the phone. Obviously this is a personal choice, but I know that most parents don’t have time to play with their phone. They just need it to work.
I’ll keep an eye on how the market progresses. Multi-platform competition is great news for developers. I suspect for people like me, developing on Android may only be a matter of time.