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Google’s I/O News: A Reminder Of How Apps Don’t Just Write Themselves

· May 17, 2013

SAN FRANCISCO–The second most-important company at Google’s I/O developer conference wasn’t there: Apple.

The competition between Android and iOS often gets played out as a battle between different phones and tablets, operating systems, and shipments and installations of each. But it’s also built on apps, and those programs don’t just write themselves.

The keynote that opened Google’s I/O developer conference here Wednesday shed some light on how that contest has been not as even as device sale and activation numbers might suggest.

Beyond a raft of announcements covering changes to Google’s search, social-media, music and mapping products–much of which involved a level of anticipating a user’s needs and concerns that not everybody may be ready to sign on to–it was remarkable to see how much time Google spent on patching some long-standing issues with the construction and marketing of Android apps.

For example, the company is shipping a new development toolkit to build phone and tablet apps, Android Studio, that streamlines writing for different screen sizes, resolutions and aspect ratios. That might not seem a big deal, but then look up how many coders hate the predominant development environment, Eclipse; Google based this new software on a competing option, Intellij, that’s drawn better reviews.

A similar overdue upgrade is coming to the Play Store: It will finally break out apps that have been optimized for Android tablets (my thought on hearing this was “they’re only fixing this now?”) and provide personalized recommendations.

On the developer side of the Play Store, a revised management interface will allow detailed tracking of revenue, country by country, as well as of which ads worked best to encourage users to download an app. It will also offer professional translation of apps into other languages and help developers conduct beta tests with selected groups of users with, presumably, a greater willingness to file bug reports if things go wrong.

And some new framework code, such as the gaming and location services Google announced and a Bluetooth wireless rewrite it did not highlight, ought to yield more reliable, less battery-intensive apps that are less likely to yield bug reports.

The unspoken context to all this was one thing that hasn’t changed even as Android devices now outnumber the iOS population: Developers make more money in iOS.

The business climate is improving in Android–during the keynote, product management vice president Hugo Barra said the company paid out more to Android developers so far this year than in all of last year–but in the first quarter of the year, 74 percent of app-download revenue still went to iOS.

Apple developers have agonies of their own. Apple’s poorly-documented App Store approval process can result in seemingly arbitrary rejections and even ejections of previously-approved apps. The company takes a 30 percent cut not just of initial app purchases (where it provides valuable hosting services) but of content subscriptions sold through the app (where it only processes a transaction but won’t let an app offer other sign-up options). Bug reports can seem to vanish down a black hole, and Apple’s iCloud storage and synchronization generates too many of them.

But there’s more money to be made in iOS than Android, and not just for big-name developers–slightly more iOS developers break even than Android developers. You can credit a variety of advantages not quickly overcome: better development tools, vastly fewer device configurations to write for, and Apple’s headstart at coaxing users into regularly making small credit-card purchases online (the iTunes Store just turned 10 years old).

As Instapaper developer Marco Arment wrote when launching a tablet publication, The Magazine, only for iOS and not Android: “By not addressing that market, I’m missing out on some revenue, but I’m not sure I’m missing out on much profit.”

(Arment has since expanded The Magazine to the Kindle and the Web, but still not Android. And having written a piece for it, I’ve directly benefited from these choices.)

I’m not writing this to say iOS is better than Android or vice versa. (My own phone is a Nexus 4; that often makes me a smartphone minority, but I felt like less of one this week.) But if you want to understand why some apps ship late or never for mobile operating systems, you can’t just look at things like their onscreen interfaces or how often new phones arrive. Some of your answer may lie in the parts of developer keynotes that have your eyes glazing over.

Competition

Some, if not all of society’s most useful innovations are the byproduct of competition. In fact, although it may sound counterintuitive, innovation often flourishes when an incumbent is threatened by a new entrant because the threat of losing users to the competition drives product improvement. The Internet and the products and companies it has enabled are no exception; companies need to constantly stay on their toes, as the next startup is ready to knock them down with a better product.