The question of "which platform to build an app for first" has been a popular one for the past five years. Often ideological or headline-focused, the platform wars may be over for now but the need to answer this particular question remains.
Similar to guidance about the costs of apps, the answer to this question varies. For example, a large media company has a different audience and more significant resources when compared to an early-stage startup. An early-stage startup that has no app yet is unlike one with revenue that has raised a Series A round. Still, a medically-oriented app might have features that can only be supported solely by a specific platform.
Because of the extensiveness of these scenarios, I've decided to address this topic slightly differently. I'm going to start with the various data that allows people like me to more easily answer this question, including everything from demographics to speed to market. Then, with those data points outlined, I'll wrap up with some ideas for when to start with one platform (along with which one), when to focus on both platforms, and when to move to the next platform.
Android Demographics vs iOS Demographics
Android currently has the largest global platform share, with a particular prominence in lower income areas and developing nations. Comparatively, iOS users typically have higher income, higher education levels, more engagement, and spend more per app. That obviously does not mean that those who have those same characteristics won't carry an Android device. Rather, this data is indicative of the general Android population.
Android Revenue Models vs iOS Revenue Models
The revenue models behind Android and iOS are somewhat representative of the approaches of Google and Apple. Android has a higher percentage of ad-supported apps where comparatively, paying for apps is still more common on iOS. There's ample data that shows iOS apps earn more revenue, with that number being 70% more in the first quarter of 2015. The previous point also hinted at iOS users being more valuable overall.
Android Release Cycles vs iOS Release Cycles
Although Android is open source, it unfortunately is locked down by carriers and OEMs. That’s why Android regularly lags behind iOS in terms of adoption rate of its latest OS version. As of November 2017, more than 95% of users on iOS are on some version of iOS 10 or iOS 11, the last two versions of iOS. By comparison, less than 20% of all Android users are on Oreo or Nougat.
This means that on iOS, you can focus on supporting the newest versions of the operating system with relative certainty your app will still have a broad reach. That focus allows developers to build against newer APIs, stop supporting older devices sooner, and generally, reduces testing and development cycle times.
Android App Features vs iOS App Features
Because Android as an operating system is open source, there are even "mods" of Android like CyanogenMod or Paranoid Android. In general, it gives developers deeper access into the operating system itself. For example, a couple of years ago, there was a proliferation of homescreen replacements including Facebook Home or Aviate, which was later purchased by Yahoo. We've also built apps in the past that needed to run on rugged hardware with custom ROM. These are just some of the reasons why certain apps may only be able to be on Android.
Android Enterprise Apps vs iOS Enterprise Apps
Over time, iOS has been able to penetrate the workplace, supplanting Blackberry in particular as a top option for enterprise-wide deployment. Along with other barriers for enterprise adoption, the more locked-down iOS compared to "open" Android has helped push iOS to be known as the more secure option. MDM providers have more sophisticated tools for managing iOS devices and apps. Apple also has had a number of programs for some time (versus Android starting to support that in version 5.0), that are focused on businesses, including the iOS Developer Enterprise Program and its Volume Purchase Program. Last year Apple also announced a partnership with IBM for mobile enterprise apps.
Android Tablet Apps vs iOS iPad Apps
It's at least worth mentioning the absolute dominance of iOS in the tablet market, especially for business users. While tablet sales may have slowed, you'll be hard pressed to find an Android tablet in a meeting room or on the desk of any executive. Anecdotally, only fairly technical people seem to have Android tablets. It's not uncommon that someone may have an Android smartphone but use an iPad as their preferred tablet.
When to Choose iOS First
Many apps wind up launching on the iPhone first due to their target demographics. Additionally, during the first stages of any app, there should be a significant amount of learning about what's working and what's not working. Trying to apply all that learning across two platforms is time and cost prohibitive.
For this reason in particular—and this depends on the amount of capital raised—most early-stage startups today begin with iOS, then move over to Android. There's ample material on that subject but I think Semil Shah does a great job summarizing why Android is much, much later for early-stage startups. Although somewhat dated now, Robert Scoble also highlighted that many influencers are on iOS—and this continues to some extent today. If you want your app covered in the press, iOS is the way to go (to start). More recently, the Coachella conference organizers stated that 90% of their attendees use iOS and their attendees are definitely reflective of influencer types.
When to Choose Android First
Android first makes sense if you're target audience is squarely focused on Android, especially in developing nations or certain segments of urban environments. It also makes sense when you're tapping into or customizing an element of Android's operating system that's not accessible on iOS, when you may need to select the hardware itself that the app needs to run on, or when you want full control over all hardware and software elements (these two items combined). I don't, however, subscribe to idea that Android lets developers "iterate faster" because of the lack of approval time. As of August 2017, Apple has extremely fast approval times as well.
When to Start with Both Platforms
Starting on both platforms is more likely going to be a consideration for companies that have more resources and are well-established. At the same time, we regularly have conversations with large companies or global brands about if a particular platform makes sense to start first.
The reason generally comes back to the learning element mentioned above. Even when pockets are deep, unless an app is dead simple, it will need to go through a series of iterations before it becomes the right experience for its audience.
When to Move to the Next Platform
Once you've perfected your core app experience, consider moving it to the next platform. I regularly point to the fact that Instagram was acquired for $1B and only had announced Instagram on Android just about a week earlier.
What that points to is the second reason to consider moving to another platform: growth. If you have metrics or market data that show you've hit critical mass on one platform, targeting the audience of the next platform is immediately going to increase your total user base size
Hopefully, the data involved in the consideration process is useful enough alone. If you have other data points you look at when addressing this subject, have more updated data, other scenarios worth mentioning, or anything else that can help answer this question, drop us a note and I'll update the post if it's worth sharing.
This article was last updated in November 2017 to indicate some of the latest market trends.
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