Every new company has to decide which mobile platforms to support and how to prioritize the work, but the mobile battlefield is littered with dead platforms and startups that bet on them. There are lots of great articles online about the technical differences among the major platforms--iOS, Android, and mobile Web--but there are also some important business differences that affect product strategy, distribution and monetization. I want to share some of the lessons we've learned at Mr. Number.
Freedom to Innovate
Five years ago you couldn't bring a mobile app to market without permission from a carrier. Those days are gone, but there are still big differences among the three major platforms. You cannot launch an iOS app without Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) approval. You can't sell a better music player, and you can't replace the core dialer, which hobbles apps like Google Voice. Mr. Number can't offer Caller ID or call blocking services on the iPhone. Rigid enforcement of the human interface guidelines makes the iPhone UX seamless for consumers but limits innovation. And you will tear your hair out every couple of weeks because your users are clamoring for a bug fix or feature enhancement that's finished but is "waiting for approval."
Despite many attempts, no company controls the desktop or mobile browser market and that means no one stands between you and your users on the mobile Web. Facebook has invested heavily; its S1 describes the company's fear of having Apple and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) control its destiny on iOS and Android. The mobile Web allows you to ignore Java and Objective C, reuse existing code, deploy continuously and avoid paying gatekeepers. The performance gap between native apps and mobile Web is closing as phones get more powerful and networks get faster: YouTube's mobile website is better than the app in many ways. But, the mobile Web isn't good with distribution and monetization, and even Facebook has taken a hybrid approach, wrapping HTML5 content in native apps.
In terms of freedom, Android is much closer to the mobile Web. There's no approval process and no rigid guidelines. The limits are strictly technical. You are free to use undocumented APIs so long as you accept the risk that an Android upgrade may break your app. Startups like Bionic Panda and Mr. Number are creating games and apps that simply aren't possible on iOS. But, there have been some incidents where legitimate apps like PhoneFusion and YouMail were ejected from the market without a clear explanation, if only temporarily. You don't need permission to launch, but you may need permission to stay in business, and it's not clear what conditions Google, the OEMs or the carriers will set in the future.
Many consumers never look past the top 25 apps, so highly-ranked apps stay highly-ranked. If you have one successful app, you can cross-promote. If you have a big audience on the Web, you can browser-detect and push mobile visitors to download your app, as multiple newspapers do on the iPad. If your business model supports a cost per free trial of 25 cents to 50 cents, you can buy your way into the first tier with mobile advertising. But, if you're a startup with a low budget, you need to consider search marketing, social media, PR, viral and OEM deals, and once again there are differences among the major platforms.
Search: Apple does not index app descriptions but Google does, so if consumers are using different search terms for your app, there's more scope for SEO in the Android Market.
PR: Apple's rankings are based almost entirely on recent downloads, so if you can drive tons of downloads in one day you can jump up the charts. A great PR campaign can do this. Google's rankings are based on multiple factors, making big moves harder to achieve.
Social: Ask users to tell friends about your app and they will. There are a handful of ways for users to share apps on iPhone, with Twitter added in iOS5. But typically there are dozens of choices on an Android phone, since any app can register for sharing.
Bundling deals: Apple does not bundle or pre-load applications and does not allow carriers to do so. But, OEMs and carriers have much more control over Android and need a way to make their phones stand out. Some have their own app stores. Qik, Swype, and Lookout have all benefited from bundling deals, and independent app stores like GetJar offer another channel for developers willing to experiment with pricing models.
Viral: If your app is truly viral--people cannot use it without sharing it--one platform is not enough. Voxer launched on iPhone over a year ago but did not break out until it launched on Android, too. Kik lost ground on both iOS and Android after it was booted from Blackberry AppWorld.
What about the mobile Web? There is no prominent search engine or "store" for mobile-only websites. Sites get lost in regular search results, competing with millions of regular websites. Google or Bing might give them a boost in smartphone search results, but so many regular websites have mobile-optimized versions that that doesn't help much. You can probably name many successful mobile-only apps, but despite all the cost advantages I mentioned above there are no famous mobile-only websites.
If you plan to charge for your app or make money from in-app purchases, iOS still crushes the competition. Apple has been collecting credit card numbers since the launch of iTunes and now has hundreds of millions of billing relationships. Google is a media company that's never sold anything to consumers, and seems torn between collecting credit cards and helping operators integrate their own billing systems with Android. (Mobile websites are exactly like regular websites: you have to handle credit cards yourself or settle for PayPal.)
If you plan to make money from advertising, Android may have an edge, for mirror reasons. Apple is still uncomfortable selling ads, Google is very good at it, and Android's open platform supports dozens of sophisticated third-party ad networks. Notably, Rovio has chosen to sell Angry Birds on iOS with no advertising and run advertising on Android with no option to buy.
If you're planning to bring a mobile app to market in 2012, you must evaluate iOS, Android and the mobile Web. The right platform for you is not simply a technical decision. The business rules, marketing strategies, and revenue opportunities all differ. For our company, Android's mix of open innovation, multi-channel marketing and ad-centric revenue model makes it our pick for the year, but your decision depends on your product and where you expect to find your customers.
Jason Devitt is CEO and co-founder of Mr. Number. Previously Jason co-founded Vindigo, one of the first companies in the US to publish content and applications for mobile phones. Products included Mapquest Mobile, MovieGoer, and the Vindigo City Guide. Jason led the company from inception to over $12 million in revenue and profitability in 2005. An advocate for open networks, open devices, and open development platforms, Jason has testified on these issues before Congress and the FCC. He holds a US patent related to location-based services.