Google Play's in-app subscriptions hold promise for fragmented Android ecosystem

Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android operating system has achieved a lot of success in the mobile developer community. Here's why: The OS is used on more than 300 million devices around the world and 850,000 Android devices are activated every day. Developers consider Android apps relatively easy to build and the platform and business ecosystem are open enough that developers have a lot of leeway when creating new apps and deciding how and where to distribute them.  

But Android does present substantial business challenges to developers because of its fragmentation and its limited money-making potential. The two issues generate near-constant debate over the desirability and practicalities of developing in Android vs. Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS, which is far more lucrative for developers and provides a more consistent development environment.

What's best for the consumer?

Developers need to think about more than just the differences between Android and iOS, said Carlo Longino, community manager at the Wireless Industry Partnership. "The question for developers should be what's in my users' best interests?" he said.

Naturally, a developer may not need to work with Android if he or she is creating an enterprise app for a company that uses only iOS devices, for example. But if the Android customer base desires a particular app, a developer should look for ways to fill that need, Longino suggested. He noted that increasing numbers of traditional iOS developers are realizing that savvy Android customers want their apps, and these developers are now adding Android to their product strategies.

Developers, in fact, consider Android to be more important than any other operating system, according to Josh Martin, director of apps research in the global wireless practice at Strategy Analytics.

When asked in a recent Strategy Analytics study to rank the importance of mobile platforms to their work for the next 12 months, Android earned a ranking of 7.3, on a scale of 1 to 10, compared to 6.6 for the iOS, Martin said.

The study found that more developers use Android as their primary platform than any other OS. And if the non-Android developers go beyond their primary technology to develop apps in another platform, Android is the most common approach used.  

Global daily revenue by store for top 200 apps, 4Q11 and1Q12 Source: App VU Global, 1Q12

New in-app subscriptions will help improve monetization

Android's monetization issues are a major concern to developers, and for good reason. According to new research from App VU Global, a research service offered by CCS Insight and Distimo, global daily revenues for the top 200 iPhone apps was $4.7 million and revenues for iPad apps generated $2.9 million per day. The top 200 Android apps distributed via Google Play only brought in $1 million per day.

The WIP's Longino said that he believes the monetization capabilities on Android will improve and that in-app purchasing will play a part of that.

And, in fact, an announcement last week from Google made a strong step in that direction. The company extended the capabilities of its in-app purchasing model in Google Play to allow in-app subscriptions.

The in-app subscription model fills an important monetization gap in Android that the Apple's iOS has offered for some time. The solution provides some innovations that could have additional value. For example, it defines subscriptions broadly so that developers can use the subscription model to streamline monetization for any kind of product, from publications to game levels, music and video content, in-app currency or value-added services. Developers can also offer customers the ability to carry their subscriptions across multiple platforms, such as Android apps as well as Web properties.

The new subscription model should help improve Android developers' revenues. Expecting this, Game developer Glu Mobile has adopted the model to give its users a single currency that can be used across all of its games.

Fragmentation remains a major concern

Android's fragmentation problem found new attention last month when OpenSignalMaps published a report identifying more than 4,000 distinct Android devices in use around the world. While a large proportion of those were rare or used customized implementations of the OS that would not be of interest to most developers, the report vividly illustrated the diversity of implementations possible with Android as well as the impracticality of trying to serve them all.

Developers generally focus their work to support a reasonable number of devices that are suitable for their apps and target audience in order to keep this issue under control. Even so, the need to adapt an app to work on multiple devices is a serious problem even or the most experienced Android developers.

Matt Powers

Matt Powers

"You have to live and breathe Android," said Matthew Powers, CTO and lead Android developer for Applico, a mobile consulting and development firm.  "If you're just a casual Android developer, you'll run into a lot of headaches."

One fragmentation issue that is frustrating developers right now is the lack of devices running Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). Fewer than 5 percent of handsets support ICS. Powers said his company won't work with it until it's more widespread. For clients that really want certain ICS features, Powers' team has figured out a workaround that uses the Froyo and Gingerbread versions of the platform.

Variations in screen sizes have also presented a thorny problem and dealing with those gracefully has been challenging for developers. Google does offer some techniques to deal with this and publishes best practices for supporting multiple screens on its developer site. And Ice Cream Sandwich offers a new technique, called multi-pane layouts, which will adjust an app's content to varying screen sizes and orientations in an aesthetically pleasing way.

Developers look to the future
As Google works on these and other solutions to address developer concerns, developers themselves will continue to find ways to streamline their work.

Linton Ye, the founder of a Canadian firm called "jimu Labs," has created a tool developers can use to quickly build sophisticated Android apps.

"My thinking is that if we can have a tool to handle the issues of the Android platform, it will make our life easier and make other developers' lives easier," he said.

Developer advocates are also looking to the future. Powers, from Applico, calls himself an Android evangelist. He is looking forward to Android 5.0 (Jelly Bean) and seeing how Google's acquisition of Motorola influences the Android landscape.

 "A lot of interesting things are going on in this space that are exciting," he said.