App-athy

Many developers prefer iOS as their app platform, often leaving Android lying in state and Windows Phone in starvation mode

By Rhuaridh Marr
Illustration by Christopher Cunetto
Published on February 14, 2013, 7:37am | Comments

Jawbone's UP wristband is a fantastic piece of tech. Lying dormant on the wearer's wrist like futuristic jewelry, its sleek and minimalist exterior carries no evidence to the power contained within its $129 body. Incorporating a pedometer, activity monitor, idleness alert and sleep tracker, it combines with a smartphone app to allow users to monitor their general health and well-being via activity, sleep and diet. The data can be shared with others to create virtual social activity clubs, generating targets and comparing with friends to spur further activity. It's a contemporary, chic approach to fitness tracking, and it's a great way to keep on top of your health. It has, however, one obvious, inexcusable flaw.

The UP connects to a smartphone via a hidden connector, which inserts into the phone's headphone socket. This allows it to sync with the device, sharing its collected data and updating the user's stats. This is all simple and easy-to-use stuff, so what's the problem? The app at the center of the UP's healthy universe, with which it syncs and generates its data, is iOS only. If you don't own an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, you can't use the UP, as it lacks any other syncing tech – it can't even connect to a PC. Jawbone has shut out every other ecosystem in favor of Apple's OS.

App Cantina

(Illustration by Christopher Cunetto)

Now, iOS is huge, there's no arguing that. According to Apple, they sold 75 million iPhones, iPads and iPod Touch's around the world between October and December. In that same period, Apple shipped almost 18 million iPhones in the U.S., becoming the No. 1 manufacturer of phones for the first time. Jawbone is tapping into a market large enough to guarantee there will be sufficient demand for the UP. They could leave the UP as iOS-only, and enjoy lucrative success.

This would be fine had Jawbone, like many manufacturers, designed the UP specifically for the iPhone. Except, they didn't. As far back as 2011, when the first generation UP was released, Jawbone confirmed to press that an Android app would be released ''soon." Someone needs to explain to Jawbone the definition of soon. Glance at their Facebook page and it's filled with posts from Android users eager to purchase the UP, with each offered a generic response – they have no ETA, it's coming soon, they'll be notified upon availability. It's vague and frustrating.

Jawbone's complacency is nothing new to Android users. Many developers, when crafting an app, choose iOS as their lead platform before porting over to Android after launch. For indie developers, iOS is much more attractive – a small pool of devices, a large user-base, and less worry over compatibility and bug-fixing. Android's vast array of choice is also its Achilles' heel, as the sheer number of screen resolutions, processors, versions of Android and manufacturer software customizations can wreak havoc with an app, and add delays and additional cost to the testing and development stage – two things an upstart developer or studio must avoid.

Windows Phone is a much better alternative from a development standpoint, with strict hardware guidelines, no carrier or software overlays, and timely updates to keep each handset's firmware in check. Its problem, though, is market share.

Despite launching over two years ago, developer and consumer interest in Windows Phone can best be described as tepid, with limited success and only a handful of standout devices generating intrigue among potential customers. Microsoft has got its app policy right, though, with set guidelines on development, a strict – and beautiful – design motif, and a carefully curated app store. Developers, though, have been turned off by its paltry market share: Why waste time and money creating a beautiful, sleek app that only a handful of people will use? It's a Catch 22 – Windows needs apps to pull customers from iOS and Android, but developers are holding off on creating them until it achieves greater success. It's a vicious cycle of apathy. Several big names are notably absent – Spotify, Instagram, Grand Theft Auto. Even the Facebook app for Windows Phone is developed by Microsoft, not Facebook, and therefore is missing several key features. It's hard to attract users to an OS that won't have the apps and games they use most often.

Facebook is no stranger to app controversy – its Android app was notably lambasted for its inferior quality in comparison to iOS. After crafting subpar HTML5 apps that looked identical on both, but were slow, buggy and generally terrible, it developed a native iOS app last August that fixed most major user complaints. Android users? No such luck. They had to wait until December before Facebook issued the same update to them. The delay? Developers couldn't be bothered to make it. Facebook had to force its employees to give up their iPhones and switch to Android handsets – in a process known as ''dogfooding'' – so they could experience the foibles of their app daily, like regular users. That a company as large as Facebook had to cajole its developers into giving a damn is ridiculous.

Android is the world's largest smartphone OS, commanding some three-quarters of the world's market share. That developers still aren't treating it seriously, or issuing updates in a timely fashion, or – in the case of Jawbone – announcing apps that never appear, is an insult to those who chose not to invest in the iOS ecosystem. Google shoulders the blame in part, for allowing Android to fragment so severely, and for only recently issuing stricter app design guidelines to developers, but the apathetic nature of many developers toward both Android and Windows Phone in favor of iOS is something that, while giving Apple plenty to feel smug about, is frankly unfair to users who covet those same apps on their non-Apple handsets.

The solution is unclear, but for developers, taking a more serious approach to Android is definitely needed. Google needs to supplement this by enforcing stricter upgrade times to keep each device up-to-date, and ensuring greater quality control in its apps. The open market is great for choice, but bad for users in the long run. Windows Phone? Its success in securing greater development lies in Windows Phone 8 devices achieving greater market share – and perhaps Microsoft subsidizing development costs to bring more apps to the platform. For now, if you want the greatest selection of high-quality apps and games, iOS is still the top choice for users. One hopes that developers will wise up and level the playing field in future.

Oh, and Jawbone? Release the damn app already.


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