Android or iOS first? A definitive guide for startups & corporations

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android-ios-logo In building a native mobile application either for your startup or corporation, one major question for entrepreneurs and corporate executives is, “Which mobile platform should I build the native mobile application that will further the business objective of my company?” We should be of no delusion that it is now a two horses race between Android and iOS, with the rest being a far distant third. The question now becomes, “Android of iOS first?” I propose a checklist in how one should tackle this question for both start-ups and corporations.

Mobility is everywhere now, and soon, smartphones and tablets are everywhere. In dealing with the age of mobility leading towards the Internet of things where software will power services from any device in the world (think of watches, clothes and Google glass), both startups and corporations have been thinking of how to harness the native applications that can help with their business. With the plethora of mobile handsets pervading both developed and emerging markets, how do executives or startup founders decide between android or iOS for the application that they intend to build? One should take an agnostic view of either iOS or Android operating systems and make a clear judgement to develop which platform first.

Different people offered answers to the Android vs iOS issue (see Asymco & IDC). Different people, Michael Smith & Steve Cheney have offered their perspectives to the issue. My experience in working across all different mobile operating systems (iOS, Android, Symbian, Blackberry and Windows Phone) has come to one perspective to the question: You must start with one mobile operating system (iOS or Android) first before expanding to the other, and to decide which one depending on your business objective, market share and marketing costs aka cost of acquisition per user.

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Why should we start from one mobile operating system first and then expand to the other? A lot of Asian companies think that they can get away “cheap” and “fast” with their mobile developing by tapping on mobile development frameworks such as PhoneGap. It turns out that they lived to regret their choice given the limitations of mobile development frameworks can screw up the loading time of the app because of the mobile operating system’s intricacies. I recall a startup using PhoneGap launching a splash screen for more than 15 seconds. It is that limitation that we see that the successful mobile applications tend to start from one platform and then expand to the other. If you develop native application based on the designated framework and language, you maximise the capabilities of the device to your advantage. Otherwise, even if you have a fantastic product idea, you are severely limited by this class of mobile development frameworks which is non-native.

For start-ups, the economics limit them to one operating system based on the constraints of their financial and manpower resources. It is natural that they pick the platform that fits the strengths of the team. Most startups select iOS first for the following reasons:

  • Lower initial development costs because of one operating system and very few devices: You only have a few devices to support and the operating system is ubiquitous across the devices. Compared to the plethora of Android handsets due to different OEMs (HTC, Acer, Samsung, LG, Motorola, Xiaomi) and fragmentation of the Android operating system, iOS focuses the startup towards the business objective of the app and prevents the team against distraction by diversity.
  • Lower support and upgrading costs: Dealing with bugs and fixes are much simpler for iOS against Android given the complexity introduced by devices and fragmentation of the operating system. One of the least discussed issues is that iOS users tend to upgrade to the latest version of the operating system faster than their Android counterparts, which means that dealing with backdated version support is much simpler.
  • iOS users generate more transactions and usage of the app than Android users: There is the Android engagement paradox. Despite achieving a significant market share against iOS, the amount of engagement on iOS against Android where iOS generated 77% of the mobile traffic against Android, in e-commerce and media browsing activities. Further more, Android users do not pay as much for apps as compared to iOS. Based on recent data, a typical iPhone user spends 19 cents per app on average against a typical Android user who spends only 6 cents per app on average. If your business objective includes the need for user to make purchases or paid for in-app, the billing system for iOS is much more established as compared to Android.

That being said, the major limitation for iOS is that there are very few monetization options and there is a lag time for the app to be approved by the iTunes store unless your app rises to a permanent position.

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I have also seen very few cases with startups doing an Android first. If you do not have a choice based on business reasons, the best implementation for the team is to support the app for at least 3-5 phones with the most coverage across different markets. I can think of the Samsung Galaxy series to be the top on the list given Samsung is leading Android market share by 63% against all other Android handset makers. While the strength of the iOS platform remains, Google has spent a significant amount of effort this year during Google I/O 2013 to focus on making developer tools better, by making improvements to in-app purchases, internationalisation and a integrated development environment, Android Studio to do unit testing across most Android devices.

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Increasing, the price of iOS Apps are going towards free. Based on a graph from Flurry analytics

For corporations, the executives prefer to splash and burn their resources to all platforms at once, only to discover later that they could not win the hearts of the customers because there is no room for experimentation. Most mobile applications of this nature fail as a result for spending most of the financial resources to build one mobile application for a few platforms and less on customer acquisition and market experimentation.

Here’s my advice in how startups and corporations in deciding which platforms to start with first:

  • Step 1: Determine & decide the business objective first before building: The first question is to address the business objective of the mobile application. Why are we building the application? Figure that out as early with a few measurable goals for the team.
  • Step 2: Establish the market conditions, product marketing costs and usage behaviour: How do users gain access to the mobile application? What platforms are popular in the countries you choose to operate in? What are the monetization options available for the market? Make comparisons against direct and indirect competitors and make sure that you have a plan in growing the user base.
  • Step 3: Work out the features on the mobile application (native or web) and do a product/market fit with the business objective Once you have the data, brainstorm on the set of features for the ideal product, and then scale it down to the minimum viable product for the first version to go to market. How are the business objectives mapped to the technical specifications? Can you build any feature that also incorporate virality into the app such that you can generate user growth based on every new user you acquired? If payment is required, which platform will give you best options to bill and collect the money from the customer?
  • Step 4: Decide iOS or Android first but focus on one platform and not two at one time: The problem with most executives or startup founders coming from a banking/consulting or MBA background is that they always try to be too ambitious and go for support across both platforms. That contradicts how the best applications have achieved their success. Take, for example, Instagram and Angry Birds, both started off from iOS. The makers of these apps focus on making the user experience perfect and develop a great user base before moving to another platform. If you have to go by Android first based on your business objective, the key is to select very few handsets (and my recommendation is three at most) to support and also start from the latest version and back support to one or two versions before the present one.

One important thing that most startups and corporations need to think about is strategic partnerships of building mobile applications with handset makers. I offer three lessons from experience. The first, is not to go into a strategic partnership with a platform which is weaker than iOS and Android even they offer you money upfront to develop. The second, always focus on whether the partnership helps to grow your user base and forget about the distractions from the other platforms which might bring you no one to your application. Last but not least, focus to get the iOS or Android app to market first and then do the partnership if the company or startup have the bandwidth, and ensure that you have enough resources to get traction of the product.

All in all, iOS or Android first? Always go back to the why question. That is my advice to everyone from the experience and lessons learnt from building apps and also observing how the best applications succeed.

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist

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