The difference between iOS and Android developers and why it's not just a numbers game

When the iPhone was introduced in 2007, and later when the iPhone SDK (now iOS SDK) was introduced in 2008, Apple explained how it was all based on a similar foundation to OS X, and even named the new frameworks Cocoa Touch, reflecting the Objective-C Cocoa frameworks of the Mac. There were and are differences, to be sure, but that core similarity not only made the iPhone, and later the iPad, instantly familiar to existing Mac developers, it made it interesting.

The Mac, though its market share was never large, especially when compared to the well over 90% marketshare of Microsoft Windows-based PCs, had always attracted an incredibly talented, incredibly dedicated group of developers who cared deeply about things like design and user experience. OS X enjoyed not only the traditional Mac OS community, but the NeXT one as well. That talent share always felt disproportionate to the market share. Massively. And a lot of those developers, and new developers influenced by them, not only wanted iPhones and iPads, but wanted to create software for them.

When you take a look at some of the best and brightest apps on the App Store they come from people with a background at Apple or on the Mac.

iOS attracted non-Mac developers as well, to be sure, and game developers, and inspired a slew of brand new developers as well. However, when you take a look at some of the best and brightest apps on the App Store - Twitterrific and Tweetbot and Letterpress and Screens and Omni Focus and Fantastical and Vesper and on and on - they come from people with a background at Apple or on the Mac. And they come from people with no interest, at least thus far, in writing for any other platform. They come from people who self-identify, take pride in, and have considerable passion for being Apple developers. (And that doesn't include any of the Apple-made apps, like iWork and iLife, which are among the best in mobile and, of course, iOS only.)

Android, by contrast, uses Java for its primary development kit, which lowered the barrier of entry for developers experienced in Java. And unlike Cocoa on the Mac, the heritage of Java developers isn't in killer design or experience, but in server-side tools and, frankly, cross-platform interfaces that people had to use rather than chose to use. Talented, brilliant perhaps, but nowhere nearly as many with the same cultural investment as Mac developers. You've got your Pocket Casts, your Press, your DoubleTwist, to be sure, but nowhere nearly the same depth on the bench.

So, when talking about raw market share size and trying to figure out at what point the math favors Android-first development, much as John Gruber of Daring Fireball has repeatedly pointed out that not all users are created equal, not all developers are created equal either.

Benedict Evans writes:

If total Android engagement moves decisively above iOS, the fact that iOS will remain big will be beside the point – it will move from first to first-equal and then perhaps second place on the roadmap. And given the sales trajectories, that could start to happen in 2014. If you have 5-6x the users and a quarter of the engagement, you're still a more attractive market.

People - developers - aren't just numbers. They have tastes. They have biases.

Which rings numerically true, but experientially false. People - developers - aren't just numbers. They have tastes. They have biases. If they didn't, then all the great iPhone apps of 2008 would have already been written for Symbian, PalmOS, BlackBerry (J2ME), and Windows Mobile years earlier. If they didn't, then all the great Mac apps would have been migrated to Windows a decade ago.

Mobile isn't desktop, and 2014 won't be 2008, but it's hard to imagine at least some of the same forces that applied to desktop and the early days of mobile won't also apply now and into the future. Hell, even Google's iOS apps sometimes get the best features first, and the better interfaces to this day.

Evans wraps up with:

A new, cheaper, high-volume iPhone would have the potential to mitigate or even reverse this trend. Clearly, like current low-end Android, it would sell to a demographic with a lower average engagement and purchase rate and so the average iOS rates would drop. However, it would mean that iOS's reach would expand significantly at the expense of Android. How would a $200 or $300 iPhone sell? Easily double digit millions, possible up to 50m units a quarter.

Beyond that, when I wrote the 3 reasons a less expensive iPhone might make more sense piece a while back, I think I forgot a 4th reason. Gruber, again on Daring Fireball, touched on it today:

All told, I think Apple could build and sell an iPod Touch-caliber iPhone 5c for $399, possibly as low as $349.Would this cannibalize sales of the actual iPod Touch? Perhaps, but modern-era Apple has never been afraid of cannibalizing its own products.

The iPod touch has been called a gateway to the App Store - the lowest cost way to be able to run iOS apps. Android, however, is increasingly becoming the gateway to smartphones. Thanks to low prices, people for whom price is the most important feature, who don't care about a smartphone other than when their contract is up and it just happens to be the next free-from-the-carrier phone, Android's market share has exploded.

A less expensive iPhone 5s could be vastly more competitive than the iPod touch as the gateway to the App Store.

Today, iPod sales are way down, and Android sales are way up. That's why, today, a less expensive iPhone 5c could be vastly more competitive than the iPod touch as the gateway to the App Store.

And if more people are buying iPhones - especially the so-called "next billion" customers getting smartphones for the first time - that'll be a huge boon to developers.

It won't be, "oh, Android has more units on the market than my favorite platform, so I guess I'd better make apps of it", it'll be "oh, my favorite platform now has more units on the market". It'll be how Mac developers likely felt when iOS started to take off.

Add to that iOS 7, which could change the expectations of what a mobile app can look and feel like come this fall, and it may not even be a question of can those kinds of apps go to Android, let alone first, but at all. Created by those talented, dedicated, passionate Apple-centric developers, they'll look like the future, in a world of very suddenly not-so future looking competitors.

Credit where it's due for the smart stuff: Some of this coalesced for me while talking to Guy English and others at CocoaheadsMtl tonight.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.