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There used to be a time when developers worked hard to make their apps compatible with devices. [tweetable]Nowadays, device makers are working hard to make handsets and tablets compatible with apps.[/tweetable]
Amazon built the Kindle Fire on the Android Open Source Platform in order to leverage Android’s developer ecosystem and adding value only in the missing parts of Android.
BlackBerry built a “runtime for Android” into its BB10 platform in an attempt to close the app gap with its main mobile OS competitors. Jolla used a similar tactic in its Sailfish OS.
And now Nokia has produced an Android phone, the Nokia X, against all expectations considering their focus on Windows Phone over the last years and the acquisition by Microsoft. The Nokia X is positioned as a low-end “stepping stone” device relative to the Windows Phone based Lumia range.
How did this flip of fortunes come about?
Why supporting Android apps is becoming a must
Apps used to be bite-sized additions to the functionality of the mobile device; individually unimportant except for a very small number of key apps. [tweetable]The bargaining power of app makers is clear from the financial results of developers – that’s to say: near zero.[/tweetable] Six years into modern smartphone platforms, a full 60% of developers are still below the “app poverty line”, i.e. earn less than $500 per app per month, according to our latest Developer Economics survey (download the full Q1 2014 edition for free).
However, apps in aggregate have now become a must-have and a big driver of competitive positions. It’s no longer enough to build your own app ecosystem, or even feasible for that matter. iOS and Android form a de-facto duopoly that is impossible to compete against. [tweetable]To survive as a mobile device maker you need to tap into Android’s app base[/tweetable] (as iOS is closed for other device makers).
To convince consumers to buy your device, you need apps. Not just any apps, mind you. The hot apps of the moment (they usually are found on iOS first, Android second), as well as a long tail of apps catering to every imaginable use case. They need to look good and be fully featured too – lowest common denominator apps won’t do if you want to put a device in the market.
To convince developers, you need to deliver many users at low development effort. The best way to do that is to produce an Android-compatible device. The second best way is to bet on HTML5 with many good cross-platform tools and advanced APIs – something that both Blackberry and Windows Phone have struggled with as well.
A good long-term strategy?
Both on the user and on the developer side of the ecosystem, device makers will fight a serious uphill battle if they don’t support Android. But is supporting Android a good strategy for Amazon, BlackBerry or Nokia in the long term?
For players like Amazon and possibly Nokia who add value on top of Android, the move is in principle sustainable. As we explained in an earlier article: you don’t need to make an OS to win in mobile. Amazon and Nokia are basically replacing Google’s cloud services with their own (and in Nokia’s case: Microsoft’s), and use the Android OS for all the rest. This enables them to add value where it really matters, i.e. where Android and Google are weak. In Amazon’s case it’s crystal clear: the e-commerce giant leverages its promotion prowess and credit cards on file to help app developers monetize better.
Device makers who try the Android compatibility approach can still lose out to fragmentation however. We argued in the Naked Android article that only a few companies in the world have the clout with developers to convince them to spend the effort on replacing cloud service APIs. GlassBoard developer Justin Williams illustrated that perfectly in his recent post, where he muses on whether or not to adapt his app to the Nokia X. (Short answer: he won’t.)
[tweetable]For Blackberry and Nokia-X-as-a-stepping-stone-to-Windows-Phone, there is little hope that supporting Android will get them out of the slump.[/tweetable] They might attract opportunistic developers looking for a few extra users, but those developers are not likely to add to the momentum of the Blackberry and Windows Phone ecosystems. “Moving up” to the native ecosystem on those devices means that developers need to rewrite their apps. This idea clashes with the opportunistic motivation that attracted them in the first place.
That’s my take. I’d love to hear your opinion. What do you think that device makers should do?