New phones, seller tools improve Android Market's fortunes

Last week's column on the chasm between App Store application revenues and Android Market app revenues yielded a number of insightful comments from readers, and if there's a conclusion to be drawn, it's that there is no one single issue to blame for Android Market's struggles. "This is really just supply and demand," one reader writes. "There are far fewer Android phones out there, thus far fewer users and consequently far fewer apps." Another agrees, also citing "the lack of a desktop window into the Android store--shopping on a tiny handset screen is tough" and "exclusive reliance on over-the-air downloads" as obstacles to Android Market achieving critical mass.

But other readers disagree that the scarcity of Android smartphones is the root of Android Market's problems. "It is the payment mechanism that is making iPhone apps successful and Android flailing in the app store market," one writes. "iTunes provides a simple way to purchase an application.With Android you have to have a Google checkout account set up. No one wants to hassle with this." Still another developer pins the blame on Android Market's setup: "Google has done a good job at hiding paid apps. They have mixed free and paid in the top seller lists, so the paid apps are way down on the list. There is a way to see only paid apps, but most users don't know about it, because the option does not show on the top level screens, only on the screens where the apps are listed. I did not know about it myself for a couple of months."

Changes are afoot, however. Last week, Google announced it will introduce a series of Android Market updates, and while the improvements don't address the storefront's most glaring flaws, progress is being made. Most notably, Android Market for Android 1.6 will enable developers to provide screenshots, promotional icons and detailed descriptions to more effectively market their applications and games. In addition, Google will introduce four new Android app sub-categories: Sports, health, themes and comics. Android Market also will extend seller support for developers in Italy. (For more information, check out this video demo.)

Of course, the Android Market improvements don't alter developer concerns over the limited number of Android handsets in the marketplace, but there is progress on that front as well. Sprint and HTC Corporation just announced the Oct. 11 release of the HTC Hero, the carrier's first Android smartphone and the first U.S. device to feature the HTC Sense widget-based UI. In addition, Motorola will unveil its first Android products at a San Francisco media event later this week. In an interview with sister publication FierceWireless, Motorola vice president of software applications and ecosystem Christy Wyatt sang the platform's praises: "We have been hearing a lot more buzz and seeing a lot more investment in Android," she said. "I think Android is making a strong run at No. 2... This has happened because developers are business owners and they are looking at a large addressable market. When you look at the upcoming aggregate opportunity across the Android ecosystem it will be significant." It's debatable whether Android is making a strong run at the competition--according to Canalys research, its share of the worldwide smartphone market remains below 3 percent as of the second quarter, behind Symbian, BlackBerry, iPhone and Windows Mobile--but the platform has made major steps forward in the last week alone. And as the saying goes, you gotta walk before you can run. -Jason