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The Long-Awaited Switch to Android-First App Development Hasn’t Happened Yet

Paul Sakuma/AP File Photo

Google’s Android operating system—which the company is updating today at its I/O conference in San Francisco—has come to dominate the smartphone industry in sales, both globally and in its home US market. But despite Android’s audience size advantage over Apple’s rival iOS, app developers still aren’t making Android their priority platform.

There are more Android apps available than iOS apps—almost 1.3 million,according to AppBrain, versus 1.2 million available iOS apps, according to AppShopper. But that’s not the best representative of priority—many apps on both platforms are low-quality, and only a small percentage of apps become breakout businesses.

Paging Silicon Valley…

Instead, most promising app startups with venture capital investments that we analyzed are either building apps for iOS and Android simultaneously or are still iOS-only. Looking at 119 recent Y Combinator incubator participants and Google Ventures seed investments, of those offering apps, more than 90% had iOS apps, about half had both iOS and Android apps, and fewer than 10% only had Android apps. Among those with both, their iOS app typically launched several months ahead of their Android app.

This seems counterintuitive, perhaps, given how badly Android is beating iOS in sales. And indeed, some smart industry watchers had predicted that Android development would have passed iOS development by now. One example: Chris Dixon, a venture capitalist at Andreessen Horowitz, wrote last summer, “The switch to Android first hasn’t happened yet, but at least based on conversations I’ve had with entrepreneurs, it seems likely to happen in the next year or two.”

It has been a year now, but Dixon concedes in an email to Quartz, “I don’t think it has happened yet.” Android versions tend to come simultaneously or very soon after iOS, he said, but they have not overtaken iOS. He adds, “I’m not sure it’s rational for people to keep building iOS first. I think the main reason is simply that the vast majority of tech people have iPhones.”

Indeed, among the startup founders we interviewed, their personal familiarity with iOS came up repeatedly as the reason they built for Apple first.

“My cofounder and I both were native iPhone and Apple users,” says Siqi Chen, co-founder of Heyday, a journaling app. “We needed to dog food our prototype product pre-funding”—that’s developer jargon for testing—”so it made sense to dog food on a platform that we already use as our phone.” Chen plans an Android app for next year, but not before the company does a major redesign.

One founder regretted his neglect of Android. “The interesting thing is that, in retrospect, not launching on both platforms simultaneously was a big mistake,” says Jon Brod, president of Confide, a messaging app for “off-the-record” conversations. “Since we’re a messaging app, the utility and enjoyment of the app is directly tied to the number of people who use it. Messaging apps require platform ubiquity. Launching without 50% of the US market and 80% of the global market was sub-optimal.”

A move to the middle

Why aren’t most developers building Android first? Some cited their limited resources and the need to prioritize. It’s still easy to build a critical mass as an iOS-only app, especially when your own community is still mostly on iPhones

“During the early stages, focus is the most important thing, since we’re so resource-constrained on the engineering side,” says Stanley Tang, co-founder ofDoorDash, a food-delivery startup based in Silicon Valley. “We’d rather spend all our efforts making one platform great than two platforms mediocre.” DoorDash currently has an Android app for its drivers, but its customers can only use iOS so far. Tang adds, “It’s much faster to develop high-quality apps on iOS.”

Others noted that Google’s development environment and monetization opportunities still aren’t as good as Apple’s—an issue that perhaps the company will address this week at Google I/O. Another common complaint is that Android is still a fragmented ecosystem—most users aren’t on the latest version, and have many different-sized devices—especially relative to iOS, where Apple controls its software updates and device lineup. (The chart below shows how stark that difference is.)

iOS versus Android versions chart

Will we see a switch to Android-first app development by next summer? Anything’s possible, but we’re skeptical. Apple recently announced several major improvements to its developer tools, and two new larger iPhones expected this fall could boost Apple’s market share.

More likely: A continued move toward developing for both iOS and Android simultaneously.

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