Android adoption surges--so where are all the apps?

Jason AnkenyGoogle's Android platform now represents 17.2 percent of the global smartphone market, overtaking Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS as the world's third most popular smartphone OS and edging past Research In Motion's (NASDAQ:RIMM) BlackBerry to emerge as the top-selling OS in the U.S., according to new data published by research firm Gartner. Worldwide sales of Android-powered devices topped 10.6 million in the second quarter of 2010, up from just 756,000 a year ago, at which time Android made up only 1.8 percent of the global smartphone market. "A non-exclusive strategy that produces products selling across many communication service providers, and the backing of so many device manufacturers, which are bringing more attractive devices to market at several different price points, were among the factors that yielded its growth this quarter," said Gartner research vice president Carolina Milanesi in a prepared statement.

And Android's momentum keeps growing: Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently said sales of Android smartphones now total about 200,000 each day, up from 100,000 a day just a few months earlier. "People are finally beginning to figure out how successful Android is," Schmidt said during an appearance at Lake Tahoe's Techonomy conference earlier this month. "It looks like Android is not just phenomenal but incredibly phenomenal in its growth rate. God knows how long that will continue."

So where are all the Android applications? According to a survey published in June by cross-platform development solutions provider Appcelerator, 81 percent of developers say they are very interested in creating apps for the Android platform, not too far off from similar enthusiasm for Apple's iPhone (90 percent) and iPad (84 percent) and significantly ahead of interest in rival operating systems like BlackBerry, Windows Phone and Symbian. Even so, the Android Market storefront presently offers anywhere between 70,000 and 90,000 apps (sources vary), a far cry from the 225,000-plus available in Apple's App Store. How can the numbers be so lopsided?

Fragmentation is the usual culprit blamed for developer cautiousness toward Android. It's an issue--just ask most existing Android developers--but Google contends it's not as big an issue as the media makes it out to be. "A lot of ink has been spilled on the fact that there are multiple versions of Android out there in users' hands at the same time," Android open source and compatibility program manager Dan Morrill wrote on the Android Developers Blog in late May. "While it's true that devices without the latest software can't run some of the latest apps, Android is 100 percent forward compatible--apps written properly for older versions also run on the newest versions. The choice is in app developers' hands as to whether they want to live on the bleeding edge for the flashiest features, or stay on older versions for the largest possible audience. And in the long term, as the mobile industry gets more accustomed to the idea of upgradeable phone software, more and more devices will be upgraded." Morrill adds that Android Market makes certain apps are only available to devices equipped to run them properly, filtering out handsets without required features listed in the app's AndroidManifest.xml.

What about app piracy? Google's on top of it, introducing a new Android Market licensing service earlier this month in an effort to assuage developer concerns over unauthorized use of premium Android applications. The free service promises a secure mechanism to manage access to all paid apps targeting Android 1.5 or higher--writing on the Android Developers Blog, Android Developer Ecosystem program manager Eric Chu explained applications can now query the licensing server to determine a user's license status, receiving data on whether the consumer is authorized to employ the app based on stored sales records, allowing or disallowing further use as appropriate. Developers also can apply a flexible licensing policy on an app-by-app basis, enforcing licensing in the manner most appropriate for each individual application. "This licensing service operating real time over the network provides more flexibility in choosing license-enforcement strategies, and a more secure approach in protecting your applications from unauthorized use, than copy protection," Chu notes, adding Google plans to replace the current Android Market copy-protection mechanism in the months ahead.

Perhaps Android Market's limited app purchase options are the problem? Google has answers for that, too. In late June, Google updated the terms of its Android Market Developer Distribution Agreement in advance of introducing new application payment mechanisms, strongly hinting it will expand the storefront's operator billing options. Now Bloomberg reports Google is in talks with eBay to incorporate the online auction giant's PayPal digital payment service in an effort to simplify the software purchase process. PayPal boasts 87 million active accounts, and continues to add roughly a million new users per quarter--it's a much more appealing alternative than the current situation, which requires Android Market shoppers to pay for downloads via credit card or Google's Checkout service. Android's getting bigger, and Android Market's getting better--time will tell if Google is finally making developers an offer they can't refuse. -Jason

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