“Six months from now you’ll say the opposite. Because ultimately applications vendors are driven by volume. And the volume is favored by the open approach that Google is taking.”
That was Google Chairman Eric Schmidt speaking at LeWeb a couple days ago. Specifically, he was addressing a question from the audience wondering why most big application developers are still choosing to develop for the iOS platform first instead of Android.
First of all, if you haven’t watched Schmidt’s entire talk with Loic Le Meur yet, you really should. They cover a range of topics important to both Google and the broader tech space. Plus, it will avoid the small situation that arose yesterday when Schmidt was misquoted, making him sound much more arrogant about the Android platform than he actually was.
While Schmidt was misquoted, the core of this latest debate around iOS and Android remains very much intact. Schmidt predicted that 6 months from now, most app developers will choose to make their app work on Android before iOS. This statement gives us an actual date that we can mark down to see if he’s right or not: June 6, 2012.
Of course, my stance is going to be that there’s no way he’s going to be right about that. Not a chance.
In fact, I’m not even sure he would say the same thing again if pressed. Because while the way he answered the question may have sounded reasonable, history has already given us plenty of guidance as to why he’ll be wrong.
The audience member who asked the question clearly did so because Android already is the dominant player in the space. And it has been for quite some time now. Schmidt brushes that fact (a fact which he so often states when it’s advantageous to an argument) aside completely and instead implies that the only reason developers aren’t rushing to Android is because the software hasn’t been good enough until now.
Of course, that goes against basically everything Google has been saying for the past couple of years. In that time, it was always been that Android was ahead of iOS when it came to software. Last year at Google I/O, for example, the knives were out for Apple’s platform. At one point, they showed Android 2.2 (Froyo) literally running laps around iOS.
So when Schmidt says: “It’s taken us a while to get software that really is capable of delivering on the promise that you’ve just articulated.” to the audience member, you have to wonder why then such a software comparison was a focal point of previous Google I/Os?
That’s not to say Android Ice Cream Sandwich isn’t good (I happen to be testing it out right now, and it is quite good — more on that in another column soon), it’s just that Google has consistently said the newest version of Android is the one that will blow the doors off the iOS house. It just hasn’t happened yet. And I see no reason why we should believe that the situation will be different this time.
Further, Schmidt goes on to imply that another reason why ICS will bring all the developers over to Android is that Google has now gotten better at working with their carrier and OEM partners to ensure the latest software is available to customers. “With the ICS release our core objective as a company is to get all of the hardware vendors onto that platform,” was his actual quote.
Yes, that has been a problem — a huge one. But again, I see no reason why it’s going to be solved here. At Google I/O this past summer, Google went on and on about their new “Android Update Initiative”. It sounded great. Google was going to get all the OEMs and carriers in line and make sure that Android updates came to all in a timely manner. “Over the next few weeks, we’ll figure it all out,” Android chief Android chief Andy Rubin said at the time.
That was seven months ago. Guess how much we’ve heard about the plan since then?
Worse, just yesterday, Motorola — the hardware company Google is buying, mind you — took to their blog to dampen expectations about when their users may seen ICS on their wide variety of phones. They don’t come out and give a date, but putting two-and-two together, it sure sounds like it’s going to be many months at the earliest. Hell, they aren’t going to even finalize which devices they want to and can update until a month from now.
Here’s my favorite bit:
3. Submit the upgrade to the carriers for certification
This is the point in the process where the carrier’s lab qualifies and tests the upgrade. Each carrier has different requirements for phases 2 and 3. There may be a two-month preparation cycle to enter a carrier lab cycle of one to three months.
I’m starting to wonder if sure any Android device besides the Samsung Galaxy Nexus is going to have ICS by June 6, 2012. That doesn’t bode well for Schmdit’s prediction.
All that aside, let’s just think about what Schmidt is saying for a second. He’s saying that developers are just months — and maybe even weeks — away from changing their current line of thinking. Are there some developers out there that do Android first right now? Sure. Has that number been growing? I think that’s fair to say (though I have no data to point to either way). But it’s also fair to say that the vast majority of the key mobile software developers are still focusing on iOS first. The audience member cited Flipboard, everyone else can probably rattle off a dozen big names.
Again, Android is already the biggest smartphone platform out there. And again, that has been the case for a long time now. So when Schmidt says “ultimately applications vendors are driven by volume”, Android should already be dominating in the race for getting the best apps. But they aren’t.
I’ve spoken to many mobile developers over the years about this issue. There are a few refrains, but they’re all largely the same.
First, many of them still seem to prefer to use iOS as their own primary device. The likelihood is greater that they’re going to develop for a platform they actually know and use.
Second, most developers are still unconvinced that you can make any meaningful amount of money trying to sell an Android app (Schmidt hit on this quickly in his remarks, saying that the Market is now better, but doesn’t really address the issue). Instapaper creator Marco Arment is going to put his money where his mouth is in this regard by offering to split the revenue with any developer who can make a decent Android port of his app and sell it in the Android Market. If he thought it would be a huge money maker, obviously he would do it himself.
Third, the Android Market is still no App Store when it comes to both distribution and discovery. Again, Schmidt sort of alluded to this being fixed, but it’s not yet clear if the changes made are actually working.
Fourth, if volume was all that mattered, everyone would still be developing for Symbian, as Anil Dash pointed out earlier. Or they might even still be focusing on Windows, as John Gruber pointed out yesterday.
Fifth, while eventually Android volume may be a boon to apps largely based around advertising, many app developers don’t want to move in this direction. Most still want to make something and get paid directly for it (imagine that) — see: argument number two.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Android development itself remains a huge pain in the ass. I hear this again, and again, and again — just as much today as I did two years ago. Android has what are widely considered to be vastly inferior development tools when it comes to making apps for Android versus what Apple gives you to make apps for iOS. Many refer to them as a joke. Or a nightmare. Or the bane of their existence. Or all of the above.
And you have to use them to ensure that your app will work on the huge number of devices in the Android ecosystem. Very few developers even bother to actually test on the majority of them, and it’s still a pain. It makes IE6-specific development look like a cakewalk.
I actually brought this up on stage with SoundTracking creator Steve Jang at LeWeb on Wednesday. They were at the conference to launch their Android app after finding some success going iOS first. When asked what the Android development process was like, he admitted it was long and painful. Pretty much every app developer going from iOS to Android will tell you the same thing — and if they don’t happen to be on stage, they’ll use many more expletives.
So you’ll forgive me if I laugh when Eric Schmidt says that by June of 2012, all of this is going to change. Suddenly, the Flipboards, Instapapers, Soundtrackings, Instagrams, etc, are going to launch on Android first. It’s like saying that by the middle of next year, the majority of all TVs are going to be running on the Google TV platform.