If you're thinking about building a mobile app and having a tough time deciding whether to build it for the iOS or Android platform, you've come to the right place.
In a previous article, we covered whether you should build a hybrid or native app. What we’re going to focus on today is answering a related question that is equally contentious: what platform should you build your app on first – Android or iOS? Contrary to the popular belief that there is one clear winner, iOS, the answer is dependent on your company’s needs, reach (niche app, local focused, national or international scope), time to market, customer base and long-term mobile strategy. While most evidence points to iOS being the platform of choice, the objective of this article is to clearly lay out the major considerations when building a mobile app on a specific platform. Once you’ve read this article, you can compare your company’s needs with the information presented below and then easily decide and justify to your executives why you've chosen one platform over the other.
If you're considering building a mobile application on iOS or Android there are ten factors you need to think about:
- What country/region are your visitors from?
- What are the demographics of your target population?
- Are you interested in reaching out to the mobile user base most likely to spend money on an app or rather the largest population of mobile users?
- Will your app be a paid app or do you plan to monetize it later on down the road?
- How quickly do you want to build an app? What is your expected time to market? Key differences regarding the integrated development environments for the two platforms impact your timeline!
- What are the main differences between developing for Android and iOS?
- Android’s operating system has more than 7 versions; iOS only 3. What’s the impact on your business as a result of this discrepancy?
- How important are the publishing policies between the two platforms to your business - do you anticipate regular updates or not?
- Does your business model require staggered releases across devices?
- Do you have to build your app on both iOS and Android at the same time?
This is a list of prioritized questions you must go through before choosing your preferred platform. The rest of the article will explore each of them in detail so you can make an informed decision on what works best for your company.
1. What country/region are your visitors from?
Your in-house analytics tools can provide you with historical data on what devices your visitors and paid customers are coming from.
There is no better indicator of the platform you should build on than the current visitors to your site. Unless you literally launched your company’s website last night, you should be able to use your web analytics tools to see a breakdown of your website traffic and to determine from which platforms users are accessing your website. Ultimately you’re trying to reach the highest segment of your current or potential customers through the implementation of your app.
A different and simpler way to think about it is this: by multiply the number of iOS/Android users with their spending on your app, you estimate the potential revenue from these two specific user bases. That will give you the best indication on what platform to choose.
2. What are the demographics of your target population?
iOS users spend and make more money than Android users.
There is hardly any debate anymore over who makes more money and spends more money on apps and in-app purchases. From the get-go, Apple won the war on this one. Average iOS users make $85,000 per year in the US while the average Android user makes 40% less or $61,000 per year. A different view shows that 41% of iOS users make more than $100,000 dollars in the US versus 24% of Android users falling into this bracket. And if we go higher up on the income scale, 60% of users making $150,000+ own iPhones rather than Android devices. This is the breakdown by income according to Verto Analytics.
App Annie, a business intelligence company and analyst firm headquartered in San Francisco, California, publishes a quarterly report showing the main financial differences between Android and iOS applications. According to the 2015 3rd quarter report, iOS users spend 80% more on in-app purchases than Android users despite having a much smaller piece of the pie at the global level.
3. Are you interested in reaching out to the mobile user base most likely to spend money on an app or rather the largest population of mobile users?
iOS users spend more on in-app purchases but the majority of American smartphone users are on Android.
The graph above doesn’t only show that iOS users spend a lot more money on in-app purchases. Though more money is spent on in-app purchases on iOS, Google Play continues to widen the gap when it comes to monthly downloads of apps. Of course, this is to be expected considering Android owns a sweeping 80% of the global Smartphone market.
In the US, Apple smartphones still account for 42% of the smartphone market share (Android has had the majority of the US share for 3 years now). At a global level the distinction is even starker with Android controlling upwards of 80 to 99% of foreign markets. That’s attributed, in part, to the emergence of $100 smartphones operating on Android in contrast to the $600+ price tag of an iPhone.
In brief, if you’re interested in pursuing the high earners in the US market as well as those customers who are likely to spend big money on in-app purchases, iOS is the platform for you.
4. Will your app be a paid app or do you plan to monetize it later on down the road?
iOS upfront monetization model may bring more upfront revenue to a business but Android’s in-app monetization can provide the same outcome over time. Most of the popular apps in the world are free with revenue being generated through in-app advertisements.
iOS revenue numbers are impressive on their own when examining revenue generated in-app and from purchasing apps in the App Store. However, there are two more caveats to the purchase data shown above: freemium models (which are big on the Android platform) and non in-app revenue generating models which are not factored into the data shown above. Let’s look at each.
There are clear reasons why Android became the biggest platform in the world and Google Play the platform with the highest app downloads. There are reasons on both the customer’s end of the spectrum and from a developer’s point of view (which we will discuss later as well). The customer gets a cheaper Smartphone but also low cost to no cost apps in the Play Store. Which is win-win for the customer thus driving demand on both platforms. Simply put, developers can reach a wider market on Google Play by listing their app for free but then get revenue through the freemium model.
Apple’s default business model from the get go was very simple: the customer finds an app and purchases it for a small fee. Apple gets 30% of the money spent by the user with the rest going to the developer. The great thing about this model is that the revenue per download is higher. The problem with this is multi-fold. First, even if an app has stellar reviews, most customers would be unlikely to pay for the app unless a) someone strongly recommends it (word of mouth) or b) they can get a demo or test it themselves.
This is where the Android model kicks in and changes the laws of nature. Users can download the app for free and interact with it as much as they want. However, either various functionalities of that app need a paid upgrade or your app has ads – either videos, or modals that need to be dismissed – which help you get revenue per view/click. If the user wants to avoid the nuisance of ads or they’re really interested in the functionalities which are not available, they can upgraded to the paid version of the app. This model has become incredibly popular, especially in the gaming mobile world.
And the theory behind it is simple: the iOS model is predicated on upfront profits – users download the app and pay for it; in the Android world – the users get the app for free and you get your profits back over time as users either end up purchasing the app or are exposed to enough ads to allow you to recover your ROI over time. Of course, even paid apps in iOS or Android can have in-app purchases but overall Android-focused apps have a different business strategy than iPhone apps.
In short, if you really want to get in front of the largest possible number of users in America and the entire world, you have a better chance of doing that on the Android platform because Android controls 85% of the world smartphone market and 52% of the US smartphone market. And if you’re worried that your app won’t make money, freemium and ads-driven app monetization strategies have proven incredibly effective modes of generating revenue which are not always tracked in the overall financial assessment of the iOS vs Android financial reports.
5. How quickly do you want to build an app? What is your expected time to market?
iOS apps are faster to build and release than Android apps
Some writers believe that building an Android app takes 2-3 times longer than building an iOS app. One engineer kept track of all the code written when building the same app on both platforms and showed that he had to write approximately 40% more code for Android than for iOS.
Android’s technology stack provides developers with (almost) infinite flexibility. Apple’s development environment is more restrictive but easier to adopt/work on.
If you’re an iOS developer you will use XCode as the IDE platform and Swift as the coding language to develop your application. As an Android developer you will use Android Studio. Though Android touts its system as being open source, adaptable, and giving developers a significant amount of flexibility (all points are true by the way!) this doesn’t necessarily prove advantageous. One software engineer writing for TechCruch insists that Apple's IDE (XCode) is better.
He describes it as “by and large, a joy to work with. It’s slick, fast, powerful, helpful without being intrusive." In contrast, he sees the Android counterpart as being "embarrassingly bad. Slow, clunky, counterintuitive when not outright baffling, poorly laid out, needlessly complex, it’s just a mess." [source]
Most iOS developers consider XCode as fairly easy to use with a great (developer) user interface and quick and intuitive shortcuts for building templates and applying in-app controls. In contrast, as some developers commented on Quora, understanding Android Studio is next to impossible and Google continues to make changes to the environment which makes it even more difficult for developers to navigate.
From a business perspective, until Android Studio reaches the same level of maturity as XCode, it may be more advantageous to go with iOS, thus avoiding the pitfalls of developing to the moving target that Android Studio continues to be.
7. Have you considered the OS version discrepancies between iOS and Android and its impact on the time to market for your app?
iOS has fewer OS versions which reduces your operational cost of maintaining and updating your app over time by not having to test a wide variety of devices and operating systems.
For iOS, most users are on up-to-date versions of the OS (a staggering 98% of all users are currently on the iOS7 and 8 with an impressive 89% of users being on the latest version). From a business perspective, the decision becomes rather easy to make. You either develop your app on the newest version, or you build it and test it for the top two versions and reach most of your users. In general, as a company, you should develop, test and maintain either a website or a mobile app that will work flawlessly for 80% of all your potential users. As such, iOS meets and very much exceeds the business expectations.
Looking at Android, you see a very different picture. Unfortunately, even today, most users are not on the latest OS. As of January 2016, a meager 0.9% of Android users are on the latest operating system Android Marshmallow. These abysmal stats are driven primarily by the very fragmented nature of the Android market where OS updates are dependent on the manufacturers pushing these updates to the users’ phones. Additionally, historical data looks really grim when it comes to users’ adoption of the latest version of the OS. In the 10 months after releasing iOS8, 83% of Apple users updated their phones to this operating system. Launched about one month later, Android’s Lollipop had an adoption rate of 12% over the following 8 months and a whopping 72% of all Android users are still on a version that is 2 years old.
To put this in perspective, 40% of all Apple users updated their OS during the first month after it was launched. Android did not achieve anywhere near the same performance before launching their new version.
See the embarrassing discrepancy below:
What this means for any company considering launching an app on Android is that controlling various versions will be a hassle, increased in-app testing will be needed, and version specific bug fixes will have to be implemented. Never mind the fact that an Android app takes 40% longer to write. The uncontested winner here is iOS, and that’s by a long a shot.
8. How important are the publishing policies between the two platforms to your business (do you anticipate regular updates or not)?
Android allows frequent app updates; Apple’s iOS has strict policies which will limit your release flexibility and updates.
On the Android platform, publishing an app is an effortless act. You simply deploy your app to your Google Play store and it becomes available for downloads, usually within hours of your deployment. Secondly, Google Play allows you to update your app multiple times a day should there be critical issues you need to fix. Finally, Google Play allows you to publish an alpha and beta version to Google Play - that way you can actually publish your app on Google Play and do live testing on it, fix issues, and then launch it to the general public.
In contrast, publishing an app on iOS can be described as a nightmare without any fear of exaggerating. It requires various levels of approval from the iOS team with bureaucratic reviews with the app deployment taking up to one week. For the “giants” in the field the process can take as little as one day but most companies should not anticipate more than 2-3 deployments per month.
9. Does your business model require staggered releases across devices?
Android’s options for staggered releases wins the battle by providing companies with the flexibility to roll out and test their apps and new features to a subset of users before rolling out the release to all customers.
Google Play has the ability to allow for a staggered release, an option loved by everyone from business stakeholders to analytics experts to product managers. A staggered release allows you to deploy the app gradually to various percentages of users, observe their interactions, and then increase the percentage of users who can access it over time. So, for example, a new version of the app is released to only 5% of the users, then gradually increased to 25%, 50%, 75%, and finally100% of the users.
This option is specifically used by businesses with high amounts of traffic on a daily basis where the impact of a bug on the app could have a disastrous impact on their app revenue. Take for example a game like Candy Crush. If they wanted to add five more episodes to their game, they would choose a staggered approach and ensure everything is working as expected. Large retail companies are another example where the risk of having any bugs after a major release is mitigated by the fact that they employ staggered releases for their applications. Once they release a new version of their app to 1-5% of their user base they either progress with the release to all users should everything be verified to be working as expected, or, if issues are found, roll back their code. This ensures any problems only impact a small amount of users instead of all the users of their app. Google Play offers the option for staggered releases; iOS does not - at least for the time being.
10. Do you have to build your app on both iOS and Android at the same time?
Choose a platform, build your app, and test it heavily. Strategically building your app on both platforms at the same time is not wise.
Most companies understand the need to build a mobile application as soon as possible to be relevant in today’s digital marketplace. And we recognize that. But the last thing you want to be doing is building your app on both iOS and Android at the same time. While it's true that developing your app on both platforms would help you reach a staggering 96% of the Smartphone global market, the philosophy of failing fast (build your app fast then fix things later) simply doesn’t apply well in the case of mobile app development because the cost of building the app on both platforms at the same time would impact your ROI significantly.
Mature software development goes through a predictable process: identify business needs, create wireframes, design high fidelity comps, perform user testing (not as well used as it should be!), develop the software based on final comps, perform quality analysis, release the software, and then monitor the performance of your software (analytics). If improvements are needed post release (and 90% of the time they are!) you go back to step one by writing the new business requirements based on the data you've gathered. Deviations from this plan typically result in lost productivity (time & money), user confusion, user frustration and finally lost revenue/traffic to your digital product. In the case of mobile app development, if you don’t have a mobile presence at all, building your apps in parallel is not a good idea because when you finally get to the point of gathering data and making changes you now need to fix an issue on both platforms – aka double work.
That is why the strategic call you should make, regardless of the underlying platform, is to build your app on either iOS or Android first, then gauge your audience’s reaction, make necessary changes, bring your app to a mature state where your critical flows have been thoroughly tested and user approved (transactional, profile management, post order in-app tasks, etc), and then move on to developing your app on the second platform.
The second reason you should develop for one platform only is that no matter how good your app is, your customer retention stats will look very dim. According to Quettra research, apps on Android lose 77% of their customer base (users who downloaded the app) in three days after an app is downloaded, and a staggering 95% of their users within 3 months. iOS apps have similar engagement patterns as well.
And this is your average app. Imagine if you put all the effort into building an app on two platforms simultaneously only to lose all these customers. So, the smart thing to do is build your app on one platform, learn from your users, make improvements, and then expand to the other platform. Take Instagram for example – they launched the iOS app and waited two years before developing the same app on Android. The reason behind their choice? Making the iOS application as robust as possible before moving on to another platform.
The bottom line: iOS a better option despite all Android’s advantages
Yes, there are fewer iOS users out there (80% fewer than Android users). Yes, developing an app on iOS becomes more tedious because of Apple’s stringent UX rules for app development. Yes, the iOS SDK takes a lot of time getting used to. And certainly, Android is appealing when it comes to its overall user base across the world and its majority stake in the US. But taking all things into account – market share, iOS vs Android demographics, time to market, users’ power purchase, the relative simplicity of the iOS SDK and IDE - it makes sense to build your app on iOS first.
Sure, Google will continue bragging about Android’s low barrier of entry, code portability and flexible app publishing process. But until Google can find a way to brings its users to the latest version of Android, develop a more vigorous development framework and make their SDK more robust, the iOS takes the cake. Financially, strategically, and tactically, iOS remains the best choice for launching your first app. Sorry Google, we have faith in you, but you’re not there yet.