It is Uncomfortable

Scott Francis
Next Post
Previous Post

It is uncomfortable disagreeing with people you have a lot of respect for. Chris Dixon, I feel confident, knows much more about mobile and startups and entrepreneurs than I do.  So when he says:

“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.”

I have to give it a lot of weight.  And yet.  In two years, Chris may be absolutely correct.  And yet, if I were building my app today, I’d still start on iOS.  A lot can happen in 2 years to make Chris right or wrong… but for now I’m still not comfortable.

Short version: If I’m an entrepreneur, I’m still be betting on iOS with my startup – because I only get one bet at a time.  If I’m an investor, I might place some android-first bets going forward, to test the waters and try to get some signaling as to what’s getting traction.

Long version: For context on my conclusion – take a quick trip down memory lane.  In 2010, another person who knows a lot more than I do about most subjects posited that the time to focus on Android first was upon us. Fred Wilson’s blog post drew a lot of fire.  He even had a followup 6 months later that confirmed (in his mind) his thesis.  But the latest market share numbers in the US tell a different story – that Apple’s iOS dominates on AT&T, Verizon, and every other carrier in which it is sold subsidized in the US.

His thesis was that if you want to be in front of the largest number of users, you want to be on Android.  The problem with the thesis is that 1 Android user is not the same as 1 iOS user…

  1. Numerous data points that iOS users spend more on apps
  2. Numerous data points that iOS users shop more on their devices
  3. Numerous data points that iOS users spend more time on their phones
  4. Numerous data points that the ads on iOS are worth more
  5. Numerous data points that lots of those Android users aren’t using their Android devices as smart phones at all.

I think the real comparison is more like Samsung Galaxy S4 + Nexus + HTC One phone users as compared to iOS users – and you get closer to the mark for a single Android user that is nearly equivalent to a single iOS user based on above metrics.  Throw in some S3 numbers to pad it a bit.

Of course, a break down of many numbers that have to do with “where’s the money” point to iOS being the right platform.  At least for now.

But people who took Fred’s advice probably got hurt.  Actually, I don’t know that.  People who did the opposite of his advice and focused on iOS first, did just great though.  Instagram comes to mind.  And Angry Birds.  And lots of other apps that made a splash on the iPhone first.  And I don’t have the counter-examples of Android-first apps that killed it.

A lot of the prognosticators have advised startups to focus on Android – first because it was open, then because it would have more users someday, and finally because it has more users today.  But each time that advice would have been premature, and startups often have a limited window of opportunity.  While your startup is chasing Android, you’re painting the path for someone else’s startup to pursue iOS first.

Right now you can’t afford to leave your iOS flank unguarded.  And “Android” isn’t one build target – it is many targets due to fragmentation of versions and device proportions and software loads.  Which makes it harder for your native Android interface to put the HTML5 interface to shame.  Contrast that with iOS development where native can still differentiate.  But don’t just take my word for it, there’s the BBC(!)…

  • Engagement is higher on Apple devices
  • Android is fragmented
  • Android development is complex and expensive

In fact, we can even find an example close to home in Texas. The ShopSavvy story.  A full two years before Fred gave his advice to go Android first, the ShopSavvy guys decided to go Android first.  Shop Savvy arguably built the better mousetrap. But someone effectively copied their app on iOS:

Without outside capital you risk missing out on the opportunity – a small, but funded, company in Boulder basically copied our application and launched it on the iPhone (using our name as a keyword) BEFORE we released our iPhone version. They generated more than a million dollars in revenue and sold to Ebay for around ten million dollars in less than a year. Had we raised outside capital we would have been able to release our iPhone application before them, easily capturing the value they were able to extract from our novel and early idea. Now Ebay is our biggest competitor instead of our acquirer.

I was on the record advocating iOS first – because it appeared to me then, and still does today – that the positive press and attention benefits of rolling out on iOS first outweigh the benefits of being on Android (or any other OS) first.  On top of that, compare iOS users to Android users.  Would you rather have more users who either don’t use your app or won’t pay for it?  Or a smaller number of users who use your app and are willing to pay? Can you leave that profitable iOS flank undefended?

ShopSavvy was early.  And despite their success, it cost them quite a few opportunities.  Credit to their scrappy engineering and business acumen that they’ve created a lot of value despite the challenges.  Two years later, Fred’s advice to go Android first was still early in 2010.

Here we are today.  Have things changed?  Let’s ask another person I put a lot of stock in, and who knows a thing or two about mobile apps, adoption, engagement, and fragmentation – Marco Arment.  So what does he have to say?

An extremely vocal minority of Android users think they represent the whole, and they express intense, childish entitlement and resentment against developers who choose either not to develop an Android app or to give advantages to their iOS app. This minority demands equality for their platform with the intensity, victimhood, and entitlement you’d expect as if it was a civil rights issue.

Fortunately, it’s not.

I’m building a new app this summer, and no matter how much people badger me, I won’t go near Android this time. Their promised support and demand never panned out. I’ve learned my lesson: no matter what the vocal minority says, the rest of the market won’t back them up. It’s simply not worth it for this iOS developer to waste any time on an Android port. Your mileage may vary.

Well that’s a pretty telling statement from a leading developer, today.

Of course, Chris isn’t precisely advising you to go Android first – he is saying that it looks to him the days of Android first are only another year or two out into the future.  Hard to argue with what hasn’t happened yet, but I still don’t “feel” this sea change.  I wouldn’t bet against him. But if I was betting, I’d still bet on iOS first today.  Because being early – in investing and startups – is often a euphemism for being wrong.  It may make you feel better to be proven (eventually) right, but it doesn’t fill your company’s coffers.

Hopefully Dan Frommer will update us in a year on how this prediction is working out… If I were funding companies I might want to fund a few Android-first companies to get some experiments out there – but if I were starting my own company, I’d stick to iOS first- because I’m not making an array of bets – I’m all-in on my one startup.  I want to win.

 

Related Posts