4 Reasons Why Android-First Strategies Haven’t Worked (Yet)

About three years ago there were a handful of companies that set out to build Android-first or Android-only startups. All of those, including the one that I co-founded, had a thesis on why focusing on Android first or exclusively was a wise strategy. With a few exceptions, most of those companies, including mine, have not yet been successful. The reasons all vary, but I wanted to lay out what I thought were the perspectives on why Android-first or Android-only strategies would work and why they haven’t worked for most companies as of yet.

This is not to say that there aren’t companies, particularly in games, where usage and monetization are sufficient to support an Android-first or Android-only strategy. You can look to those companies as examples of why it can work when certain conditions are present.

Most people working on Android strategies from the start adopted one of three core strategies, each of which I will summarize below. All three strategies generally supposed that Android would get better – the devices would improve, monetization would improve, and developing for Android would get easier.

“We will be like [insert iPhone app] but for Android.”

The basic logic of this strategy was that many of the iOS-focused companies who were building great applications would not prioritize building for Android and this would leave a gap in the market for Android-focused developers. One of the early targets was Instagram – Instagram did not rush out an Android version of their application and that left a hole to build the “Instagram for Android.” The theory was that while those iOS-focused companies stayed focus on iOS, the Android-focused companies would find good traction on Android. Doing so would create Android-focused competitors with whom their iOS counterparts would have to reckon. The end game for this strategy was to either a) build a real beachhead that would yield an interesting company based on audience or traction or b) be well-positioned to get acquired by another iOS-focused competitor when they wanted an Android play.

“We will focus on Android first and then launch on iPhone when we work out the bugs and user experience.”

This was another common strategy I heard articulated by smart people. The goal for these folks was not to be Android-only and ignore iOS but rather to use the nature of Android and Google Play (no gatekeeper on pushing updates, more freedom around app promotion and customer acquisition and the large, rapidly-growing audience) to test out concepts and ideas which would later either migrate to iOS or become multi-platform mobile products or services. The core thrust of this strategy was that the ability to push updates and tinker with an app on Android was a faster path to learning than dealing with the iOS ecosystem. And, as a corollary, there was a belief that lessons learned on Android could be applied to iOS development.

“We will become good at developing Android and learn its ins and outs until monetization catches up with iOS.”

This is what I call the patience strategy. It was basically a recognition that Android was not, at the time, a compelling monetization platform for developers when compared to iOS. Rather than trying to force the issue, a set of developers decided to hunker down, focus on Android, learn the platform from a technical and distribution standpoint, and grow as quickly as the platform would allow. This strategy assumed two things. One key assumption was that the lessons learned in the early days of Android would have lasting value going forward and would be hard to replicate. A second assumption embedded in this strategy was that being in market and learning would confer an advantage relative to waiting until the platform was more stable and attractive and jumping in them.

Broadly speaking, I think all of these strategies have proven difficult and I have some thoughts as to why that has been the case.

The cost for waiting to address Android as an iOS-focused company has proven to be low.

Probably the most difficult market development for the Android-first crop of startups has been that the cost of ignoring Android for iOS-focused companies has proven to be pretty low. For companies that build really great applications on iOS, waiting to release on Android has been okay. I look at a lot of the larger companies, including both Instagram (when independent) and Facebook, where their decision to wait did not create a window for a viable competitor to emerge.

The technology and design principles that can propel you to success on Android don’t necessarily map to success in iOS.

Another challenge, particularly for the folks who chose to start on Android and migrate to iOS, was that the design principles and technical skills that can lead to success on Android don’t all translate to iOS. I think this is particularly true when it comes to UI and UX. I use an Android and an iOS phone every day and I can say that Android gives you a lot more option to use menus and submenus to hide stuff and I, as a user, have more buttons to use to navigate when I’m inside an app. And it has to work on a variety of screen sizes and form factors. In many ways, the iOS experience is more constrained and the general way I use iOS apps is different.

The benefits to getting in early and learning are still unclear.

Three or four years ago, Android was really a mess. It’s not perfect now, but it has come a long way. The platform itself does more for developers than it used to. Fragmentation is still an issue, but the core OS has gotten better, as have the devices. So there’s a legitimate question as to whether lessons learned in 2011 and perhaps even 2012 still apply if you are starting Android development today. In some cases, getting in early allowed a company to build a really strong market position and defend it – see Dragonplay in the world of poker apps in Google Play. In many other cases, those early entrants simply confirmed that building on Android was hard and maybe was a good deal of pain for an uncertain amount of gain.

The lack of consistent per-user monetization limits the ability to invest in paid user acquisition.

I think people have written pages and pages about how Android per-user monetization is not on par with what you see on iOS. That is true for many (but not all) categories. The challenge in low per-user monetization for startups is that for many, paid user acquisition is part of how they plan to grow. That per-user revenue provides the funds required to support advertising and paid user acquisition. The challenge, at least in my opinion, seems to be that while Android users are less expensive to acquire (when compared to iOS users on average), the return on that spend is not always high enough to support paid user acquisition. So that basically takes paid user acquisition off the table as a growth strategy for many companies not in games or other high monetizing questions.

Ironically, I think the net result of the lack of success for Android-first or Android-only strategies has been that iOS companies now think about tackling Android earlier in their lives, even if they don’t do it right away. In my conversations with mobile startups, they all know they’ll have to answer the Android question even if the answer is that they’ll address it later.

As always, feel free to leave a comment here or send me your thoughts on Twitter @chudson. I’m particularly interested in your thoughts if you have started an Android-focused company or led Android development at an iOS-focused company.

  • http://www.semilshah.com/ Semil Shah

    Thanks for writing this. More people need to read this and understand why Android-first doesn’t make sense for venture-backed startups. So far, I’ve only found a couple where it does make sense — Maneesh’s MightyText, and the folks from Ginger.io

  • http://www.charleshudson.net chudson

    Yeah, I wanted to sit down and distill some of my thoughts. The list of companies where it really makes sense outside of games is shockingly small.

  • Doug Williams

    How many for-pay apps are self-sustaining? It’s not clear to me that the App ecosystem is sufficient for a stand-alone app company to survive at all.

  • Doug Williams
  • http://www.charleshudson.net chudson

    Paid apps, as a category, is likely dying on the consumer side, will have life on the enterprise side.

  • Jukka Hilvonen

    Good article, but of course there always exceptions to the rule. For example Finnish game developer Fingersoft had Android-first strategy which worked out quite nicely for them.

    In the beginning there was only one man (Toni Fingerroos) who had the idea to develop very quickly (publish once per two weeks) small camera applications in Google Play. The reasoning behind this was that when he published in quick enough rate, the camera apps would be discovered through Top New -lists of the marketplace. Then he used his own cross-promotion solution to always bring the retained users of previous apps to the new apps and this way build up the user base.

    Then when he had enough users, he published Hill Climb racing and he knew for sure that after the launch, he would get five million users in the start which would take the application to global top free lists and by that, making even more users.

    Then when he had enough users, and the game was good enough, he could publish the game in Apple App Store knowing that the game would be immediate success because a lot of users who had watched their friends playing the game in Android device, wanted the game to their iOS devices.

    This happened back in Q3 2012 and it was a working strategy

  • http://www.charleshudson.net chudson

    Hi Jukka,

    This is a good example of a company for which it did work. I’d say the same is true of DragonPlay and a few others. Thanks for pointing this one out to me.