Where Are the Android Killer Apps?

Every few weeks or so, I reiterate my wish for an Android analog to the iPod Touch — something more or less comparable to state-of-the-art Android phones in terms of performance, software, and quality, but costing, say, $250 (or less) with no contract.

There are some maybes out there already, I know.1 But why do I even care? Basically it’s that I’d like to stay up to date on Android, and on Android apps. Sort of like how if my primary interest were console video games, I’d almost certainly own both a PS3 and an XBox 360. I have this notion in my gut that if I want to stay current on mobile app platforms, I should have at least one Android device to go along with my iPhone and iPad.

But, the thing I’ve noticed, eight months after returning a Nexus One I borrowed for six weeks from a friend, is that, well, I don’t seem to be missing much.

I’ve complained, numerous times, about the “how many total apps are in your store?” metric — the idea that Apple is “winning” because there are more iOS apps than there are apps for any other mobile platform. If quantity of app titles were all that mattered, we’d all be using Windows, not Mac OS X, right? Having the most apps matters, but having the best apps matters too. The sweet spot for a platform is to do well in both regards.

Quantity of titles is, in some way, a measure of a platform’s strength. But what I care about are the great apps. Where are the great, or even good, exclusive third-party apps for Android?

Let’s sort all Android apps into the following categories:

  1. Apps from Google.
  2. Third-party apps that also exist on iOS.
  3. Third-party apps that are exclusive to Android.

From my time spent with the Nexus One early this year, I know that Google’s Android apps are pretty good. These include both the core system apps, and the closed-source “Google Experience” apps like the dedicated Gmail client and Google Maps.

There are definitely a fair number of apps in the second category — those ported to both iOS and Android. Examples: Amazon’s Kindle client, Pandora, and a few popular games, such as Angry Birds and Doodle Jump.

But what I find striking is that the apps in the third category — those exclusive to Android — are almost entirely unappealing or irrelevant to iOS users.

That’s not to say there’s nothing in Android, as a system, that appeals to iPhone owners. Built-in turn-by-turn navigation on certain models. A system-wide notification system. Widgets on the homescreen. Over-the-air system updates. Unrestricted background processing for third-party apps, battery-life be damned. But those are things that are built into the system itself, or which otherwise come from Google. What I’m questioning is the strength and depth of Android’s third-party developer support.

Which are the apps, from developers other than Google, that I should feel like I’m missing out on because I don’t have an Android device? Where are the killer apps for Android?

Turn the table and we could be here all day running down the list of high-quality, interesting apps which are exclusive to iOS.

Given the explosive sales growth of Android — that it’s now the best-selling smartphone OS in the U.S., and selling very well worldwide — isn’t this unusual? Or at least unexpected?

Popular third-party Android apps clearly tend to be of a decidedly lower design quality than popular iOS apps. (The key word in that sentence is popular — let’s concede that the majority of all apps, at the unpopular end of the long tail both in the iTunes App Store and Android Market, are junk.)

Not all popular third-party Android apps are sub-par, design-wise. But those that are well-designed, in most cases, are the ones which are not exclusive to Android. And the ones that are both exclusive to Android and well-designed, from what I’ve seen, seem to be apps that only make sense on Android, insofar as they wouldn’t be allowed in the App Store.

One example is Slide Screen, from Larva Labs. It’s a home screen replacement that shows a very attractive list of status information and notifications. Looking at a screenshot, most people would guess it’s an iOS app, not an Android app. (Larva Labs even took the trouble to embed a real version of Helvetica in the app, rather than use the low-brow fonts that ship with Android.) Another home screen replacement for Android that looks good is LauncherPro. Swype, a gesture-based third-party keyboard, is another. But none of these apps could exist for the iOS App Store, because iOS doesn’t support things like third-party home screen replacements.

At this point, I’m guessing, Android fans are ready to exclaim that the fact that Android supports things like home screen replacements (or other system-level tools, such as touchscreen keyboard replacements) — and that iOS does not — is precisely why they prefer Android, and/or consider iOS to be an unacceptable toy, or what have you. But, again, that’s not the argument I’m making. I’m talking about third-party developer exclusives — and the only ones Android has are ones that Apple doesn’t want.

Android’s Top Apps

Two weeks ago, TechCrunch ran a feature by Alex Ahlund: “Top 30 Android Apps of All Time”. (Ahlund seems well-credentialed to assemble such a list; he ran the Android app directory AndroidApps.) It’s really three separate top 10 lists: free apps, paid apps, and games.

In the free list, the top five apps are all available for iOS,2 or, in the case of #5, Barcode Scanner, have equivalent if not superior iOS alternatives. The first app in the list that’s exclusive to Android is #6, Lookout — an anti-virus app.

In the paid list, Android exclusives include Root Explorer (a file system manager), Advanced Task Manager (a process monitor/killer), a collection of home screen widgets, SetCPU for Root Users (a hack for overclocking your device’s CPU), and CacheMate for Root Users (for manually managing system caches). Spot a trend?

And then we get to the games.

Three of them are also available for iOS: Fruit Ninja, Zenonia, and Angry Birds. One is WOW Keyboard, which isn’t itself a game, but rather a remote control for playing World of Warcraft on your Windows PC. Topping the list is Robo Defense, a tower defense game that I’m tempted to say is the Hydrox to Fieldrunners’s Oreos, but I fear that’s an insult to Hydrox. Abduction is an avowed clone of Doodle Jump, the promotional video for which doesn’t even show the game in action. The only exclusive Android game on the list that strikes me as appealing is SNESoid, a Super Nintendo emulator. I.e., the best games exclusive to Android were written for a mid-’90s console system from Nintendo.

Compare and contrast with the library of exclusive games for iOS. Just in the past few days alone, I’ve bought three new exclusive iOS games, any one of which would surely beat any of the exclusive Android games on Ahlund’s list of all-time best ones: Astronut from The Iconfactory, Rage HD from Id Software, and Star Wars Arcade: Falcon Gunner from LucasArts. (Total cost for all three games: $9.) That games of this caliber are all exclusive to iOS is, arguably, the biggest hole in the argument that Android is to iOS what Windows was to the Mac. Say what you want about the quality edge that Mac software holds over Windows, but Windows has always had the games.

The App Console

It’s actually not true that SNES emulation is exclusive to Android. Rather, it’s exclusive to the copyright-violation free-for-all Android Market when compared to the iOS App Store. Cydia, though, has a bunch of emulators available for jailbreak iOS users, including SNES.

In fact, the Android Market, as a whole, bears a lot more resemblance to the Cydia app store than it does to Apple’s official App Store. This is both in terms of content (system hacks, geek utilities, lower-quality UI design) and audience (the sort of users who put “task killers” and home screen replacements at the top of their favorite app lists). Browse the Android Market apps listed at sites like DoubleTwist and AppBrain, particularly the most popular lists. Then browse the listings in the Cydia app store, and tell me there isn’t a strong similarity.

I’m not saying Android is in trouble. The opposite, in fact: I think it’s going to continue growing — in terms of handset sales — despite this. And maybe as Android handset sales grow, this situation will change, and developers will start creating exclusive killer apps for the platform, drawn by the size of the market.

But I am saying that Android, today, is thriving despite the fact that its third-party software library is very weak compared to iOS’s. It’s not that most top-notch mobile apps are written for iOS. It’s that almost all of them are, despite the fact that Android, by most accounts, has surpassed iOS in phone sales and perhaps drawn even in unit sales overall. Android developer support has grown over the past year, but at nowhere near a rate that’s commensurate with the growth in Android handset sales.

So: Why?

When you think about competition between platforms in other fields, like game consoles — Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo — there’s a strong correlation between device sales, developer support for the platform, and software sales. In mobile computing, it’s not so much that there’s no correlation between hardware sales and the app market, but that there really is only one console-like app market: Apple’s. Keep in mind that Symbian is still the best-selling “smartphone” platform worldwide, and that BlackBerry has a larger installed base than Android. I’ve premised this piece on a comparison between only iOS and Android because Android is the one platform that, technically, seems most capable of supporting exactly the same sort of apps that iOS does. But no one has a console-like success story like Apple’s App Store.

My hypothesis hinges on three factors:

  1. Apple has carefully constructed iOS and the iTunes App Store to support this “app console” model.

  2. Developers, large and small, have swarmed to Apple’s app console model, with consumer-friendly apps, design, presentation, and pricing.

  3. iOS users understand the app console model and have embraced it — both in terms of a willingness to look for and install apps, and a willingness to pay for them.

None of those three things are true for Android.

Android, perhaps, could be an app console, technically, but it doesn’t seem like that’s how it’s being used in practice. Google doesn’t treat it that way, developers don’t treat it that way, and Android users don’t see it that way. In fact, many of the most popular third-party Android apps are ones which treat Android like a PC rather than a console — background apps, task killers, system home screen replacements, alternative keyboards, and the like.

The mere existence of things like task killers and anti-virus apps for Android — let alone that such utilities are popular — erodes consumer trust. Inherent to the console model is that third-party software can’t — not shouldn’t but can’t — damage or gum up the system.

Developers complain, not without merit, that the iTunes App Store is rigged toward low-priced apps. But the Android Market seems rigged toward no-price apps. Apple is making a high-profile foray into mobile advertising, yes, but it doesn’t seem to be displacing the market for paid apps. On Android, on the other hand, advertising seems to be the only way for developers to generate significant revenue. Paid Android apps don’t seem to sell well. Are ads a good revenue model for mobile games?

I spoke to a source at a very successful iOS game development shop earlier this week, regarding the company’s plans for Android. According to my source, the company is investigating skipping the Android Market entirely, and working out exclusivity deals with handset makers to bundle games on Android phones. In addition to solving the revenue problem, such deals would also alleviate the technical fragmentation issues. Rather than try to make a game that runs on all or even most Android phones, they’d just have to support a limited numbers of specific handsets. Such deals may well prove profitable, but they would take Android even further away from the app console model that’s at the heart of Apple’s iOS success.

Things may change, especially if Android unit sales growth continues to outpace the industry. But as it stands, Android is a success mostly as a mobile phone — voice and text messaging — and as a client device for Google’s services and the mobile web. Millions of people have bought Android phones, and many millions more will. But iOS is a roaring success even if you take away the iPhone, and consider only the iPod Touch and iPad.

Put another way, the iPhone is clearly in close competition against Android handsets in the mobile phone market. But iOS, as a platform, almost completely dominates the mobile app console market. In the history of epic tech industry rivalries, I don’t think this situation is similar to anything prior.

A final thought, regarding Android’s relative weakness as a software platform. iOS’s exclusivity for a bunch of big-name mobile games — Need for Speed Undercover, Star Wars: Battle for Hoth, Monopoly, Tetris, The Sims, Assassin’s Creed — has been broken. Not by Android, where none of these games exist, but by Windows Phone 7, a one-month-old platform.

  1. E.g. these tablets and handhelds from Archos, for example. But their smaller models all have resistive (rather than capacitive) screens, and overall seem a little crummy. The Samsung Galaxy Player looks interesting, but U.S. pricing and availability haven’t been announced yet. The most enticing thing I’ve found so far is not a non-phone, but rather a cheap phone: the Huawei Ascend, which pre-paid carrier Cricket is selling for $185, no contract. ↩︎

  2. Admittedly, this includes Google Voice, which only became available for iOS earlier this week. But even if Google Voice weren’t available in the iOS App Store, it’s from Google, so it’s not a third-party Android app. ↩︎