iPhone users aren't the only ones to get cool apps

As more manufacturers roll out Google Android-based devices, developers are likely to start creating more applications for them.
Written by Marguerite Reardon, Contributor

The long awaited flood of Google Android devices is about to hit the market, which should help bring more cool applications to new Android phones.

Motorola will be the next big manufacturer to announce its Android phone. The company plans to formally unveil it at an event on Thursday in San Francisco. Motorola has already been reaching out to developers to get them on board to create new applications that it hopes will drive demand for the new phones.

Mobile applications for smartphones are hot. The fact that Apple's App Store has had more than one billion downloads after only being around for a year means that smartphone users are hungry for applications that make their phones more useful and fun. But developers, whether they are large or small, have limited resources and time, and they must choose which platforms to develop applications for first.

So far, it's clear that the iPhone is the first platform developers target. As a result, Apple now has the largest mobile App Store on the market with over 75,000 applications. What this means for consumers is that it's more likely that the newest and hottest applications are available on the iPhone before other devices.

And the reason developers choose to develop for the iPhone is simple. It has the largest base of interactive users. It also has an easy and efficient distribution channel using the iTunes store. And it's easy to develop for given that there is one screen size and a single version of the operating system.

"Developing for the iPhone is a no-brainer," said Noam Bardin, CEO of a mobile app company called Waze, which has developed navigation applications for the iPhone, Android, Symbian, and Windows Mobile platforms. "You get more bang for each line of code you write for the iPhone. But then the question becomes, which platform do you develop for next?"

Right now, it seems like the big developers are creating applications for Research In Motion's BlackBerry devices. And then they move to developing for Google Android.

"What's happening is Android is the third platform for people to think about," said Alex Quilici, CEO of YouMail, a free, visual voicemail service that is available for the iPhone, BlackBerry, and Android devices. "The way we have done it is as YouMail has gotten a larger and larger audience, we've started to see 4 percent or 5 percent of our audience on Android. And we've built an Android app to satisfy those folks since it's relatively easy to do."

Earlier this week, Yahoo announced a Flickr application for the iPhone and two other Yahoo applications for iPhones and a handful of BlackBerry devices. The company said it plans to release versions of these applications for other phones, such as Android phones, later.

"We will make these applications available on Android devices and the Palm Pre later," Sandeep Gupta, senior director of mobile applications at Yahoo said. "We're not waiting until these devices have critical mass, but we do have to prioritize. And that means developing apps for devices with the most interactive mobile users first."

The iPhone and the BlackBerry are the two leading smartphones in the U.S. market, so it makes sense for developers like Yahoo to develop for these devices first. But as more Android phones come on the market in the coming months, the priorities among developers could change. Apple, which has at least a two-year head start on the rest of the market, will clearly be the first priority for developers for a long time to come. But Android will likely garner some attention as well.

"You'll see a slow but steady increase in development for Android," Quilici said. "And it will be driven by people porting existing applications or extending applications that are interfaces to services."

This week, two of the most popular mobile applications, social-networking site Facebook and the online radio service Pandora, each released applications on Android Market. These applications have been available for months in the App Store and the BlackBerry World.

In many ways, Android has the potential to be an even bigger platform for developers than the iPhone. Many developers have already been impressed with Google's open approach to the market. Not only is the source code freely available to developers, which makes developing for the platform easy, but developers can also post their applications directly to the Android Market. This means developers can get updates and new versions of their applications up immediately, instead of waiting to be approved by Apple.

The one thing that could hurt Apple in the long run is the fact that the company approves every application that gets into the App Store. Developers have often complained that the process can be long and applications are often denied without any particular reason given.

"The biggest challenge for a developer when it comes to Apple is getting their application certified," Bardin said. "The whole process is a black box. You don't know how long it will take or if your application will be approved."

Meanwhile, BlackBerry may have the biggest audience in terms of smartphones in the U.S. market, but developers say that it's the most difficult environment to develop applications for because there are so many different versions of devices with different screen sizes and screen resolutions and even slight differences to the operating systems.

The new BlackBerry AppWorld store also hasn't really taken off yet, in part because it's not as easy to use as the App Store for the iPhone. Payments are made through PayPal and the audience is more likely to pay for productivity applications, rather than games and other applications, according to Quilici. The other problem is the AppWorld store isn't available on every BlackBerry, which means discovery is easier for some users than it is for others.

Then there is Android. The platform is considered the easiest to develop for. But the market thus far has been small because there have only been two devices available in the U.S., the G1 and MyTouch, both made by HTC and sold by T-Mobile. Sprint also announced it will offer an Android phone on October 11. Internationally, Android-powered devices have been launched in 21 countries with 32 carriers in 11 languages.

The lack of Android devices has likely prevented some developers from spending the money and effort to develop applications for the Android Market.

Google has confirmed that the Android Market has more than 9,500 apps--some that are free and some that are paid. That's just a fraction of the number of applications available in the Apple App Store. Still, Android users are quite active, Google has said. Users have downloaded an average of 40 applications on their devices, and four out of five users download at least one app per week.

Now that manufacturers are finally rolling out new Google Android devices, there could be a much bigger audience for developers to reach. Motorola is expected to announce two new Android phones on Thursday. And Chinese manufacturer Huawei has announced a prepaid Android phone for Europe. Other manufacturers, such as Samsung and Sony Ericsson, are also expected to launch new Android phones later this year.

The big question for developers going forward is whether or not all these new Android devices will work with apps in the Android Market.

"There won't be just one screen size or resolution. CPU utilization might different," Bardin said. "These are all different devices made by different manufacturers. And right now we don't know what is going to happen. We don't know the changes that each manufacturer has made to the OS."

The one thing that could make Android a phenomenal success is if Google can crack the mobile advertising market through its application store. In June, Google launched a beta version of AdSense for Mobile Applications, which allows developers to earn revenue by displaying text and image ads in their iPhone and Android applications.

"If consumers don't have to pay for applications because they're subsidized by advertising," Bardin continued. "And if developers can make money through advertising, it's a home run for Android for sure."

Marguerite Reardon has been a CNET News reporter since 2004, covering cell phone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate, as well as the ongoing consolidation of the phone companies. E-mail Maggie.
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