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Developers fight it out over Android and iOS

Apple and Google compete for mobile app developers

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In mobile computing, two platforms have emerged as dominant choices: Apple's iOS, which runs on the iPad and iPhone and Google's Android, deployed on a variety of systems, including Motorola Mobility's Xoom tablet. For developers and users, the two platforms each offer distinct differences both technically and in their app store strategies.

Developers are lining up in the respective iOS and Android camps, citing enterprise and developer benefits ranging from multivendor support for Android to more maturity for iOS. Although some IT shops and developers are sure to back both platforms, pronounced differences between the two mean there can be no attitude that they're both the same when it comes to developing apps.

Android, iOS vie for customers and developers are watching carefully

Android's multivendor strategy, as opposed to the Apple-only availability of iOS, could lead to it capturing the enterprise, similar to how Windows won out on the desktop, says Robert Mac Hale, project evangelist at Lingo-Bingo.com, where he is helping develop a mobile application development framework: "Within five years, Android should go farther [in adoption] than iOS by a large margin."

To help make this happen, Google may need to cooperate with Microsoft to ensure interoperability between Android and Microsoft Exchange, he says. "As I inventory complaints from iPhone users transitioning to Android, the Outlook sync problem is at the top of the list. Imagine someone entrenched in Outlook without Exchange Server: Their calendar and contacts contain a map of their personal life and business relationships," which is often lost due to Android's lack of support for Exchange security features.

Also, Apple's insistence on keeping Adobe's popular Flash Player rich Internet plugin off of iOS devices helps Android, Mac Hale says. "I know people who moved from iPhone to Android solely for Flash. Flash support on Android is a make-or-break purchasing decision for many users. Many content providers build streaming video around Flash. And iPads cannot access this live webcast content," he says.

But Aaron Hillegass, CEO of programming contractor Big Nerd Ranch, sees iOS having the advantage: "Enterprise IT departments are overwhelmed not by technical problems, but by the needs of non-technical users. iOS's better user experience means that an iOS app can be used by less savvy users with little or no training."

As for Flash, Hillegass describes it as a "weak technology" that will be replaced by an open standard like HTML5 anyway. "If there is any downside to not supporting Flash, it will disappear soon."

Developer opportunities for mobile apps centre on Android and iOS

Dice.com, which runs a job board for technology professionals, is finding growing demand for both iOS and Android development skills. The number of positions mentioning iPhone is up 166 percent this year, to 1,035 postings. Android postings are up 266 percent, to 1,160, says Alice Hill, Dice.com's managing director.

"You have a pretty big jump from the previous year, but there's a scarcity in terms of the number of people who have those [development skills]," Hill says. Dice.com has about 1 million résumés in its database, but only 1.6 percent mention iPhone skills and 1.2 percent cite Android. "There's just not a lot of talent out there."

Android's advantages for developers

Android offers an easier application development experience, Mac Hale contends. "If I build an iPhone app, that's no different than building a Windows app with Visual C++. It's just a painful, very laborious process. If I build an Android app today, it's like building a web page with HTML, JavaScript and SQL. It has very rapid development languages."

The Java-oriented Android, Mac Hale says, offers a rapid development environment whereas iOS does not.

iOS's advantages for developers

"Good programmers prefer iOS," Hillegass says. "Most iOS development is done in Objective-C, which is a very dynamic and loosely typed language. This means that a good programmer can do amazing things." By committing to Objective-C instead of Java or Flash, Apple is attracting the best and brightest, he argues.

Hillegass adds, "Besides the flexibility of Objective-C, iOS has a more mature API, better documentation, and better tools." Plus, "iOS runs native code, whereas Android runs on a virtual machine," he says. "Thus far, this has been an advantage for iOS. Even Android devices with faster CPUs feel slower than their iOS counterparts."

Android also suffers from fragmentation, with many versions of the OS on the market. "Anybody can do anything they want, which leads to confusion," says Sujith Kumar, the iPhone-using CTO of the virtualisation business unit at Quest Software and a former developer. By contrast, Apple keeps its various devices updated in lockstep to a common OS version.

Google's open app store versus Apple's highly controlled app store

In their approaches to application stores, Apple and Google also part ways on strategy, and that matters to developers. With the Android Market, developers pay a one time registration fee, then upload away. For Apple's App Store, developers submit their applications under Apple's guidelines and hope the application is accepted.

Alex Ly, a developer at the US Army Geospatial Center, is working with Android instead of iOS. "One of the reasons we chose Android to develop is because it's much easier and more flexible to develop apps for the Google marketplace," he says. The strict conditions of Apple's SDK licence so far have received a thumbs down from his employer, "our legal department looked at it and wouldn't allow us to sign."

But not all developers view such stringent control as a bad thing. "We're all afraid of Steve Jobs as the dictator who controls the one and only iOS app store, but the good news is we have a dictator," Hillegass says. Even Mac Hale gives Apple a nod: "I think that the value of the Apple business model is the safety of the customer," noting that Apple's approach keeps out spyware and such.

Android's platform, by contrast, is built to be open, Mac Hale says. Applications can be loaded that are not from the Android Marketplace, if the user enables it in their device's settings. But that openness brings its own issues. The Android Market confuses users with matters such as having some pricing based in euros, says Jay Freeman, the creator of the iPhone jailbreaking technology and the Cydia app store for jailbreak apps. "There's a lot of barriers to people actually making purchases in that store," he adds. There's also a problem of malware apps masquerading as legitimate apps in the unregulated Android Market.

But Freeman notes that Android users have another option: Amazon.com's Android application store, the Amazon Appstore for Android. It's an attempt to apply Amazon's expertise in user experience and online purchasing to Android offerings. Although Freeman says Apple understands how people want to make purchases and how to make it easier for them, the lack of an open ecosystem for iOS prevents innovation at the market's pace.

Both platforms are already winners in the marketplace

Although differences are clear in the Android and iOS platforms and strategies, developers are likely to choose one or both of these platforms as their first deployment choices because they are the most successful in the market. Enterprises are already seeing employees adopt these two brands of devices. All others, including Windows Phone and RIM's BlackBerry, are sure to get lower priority.

"Developers will support whichever mobile operating systems are used by the most people," says Mike Gualtieri, an analyst at Forrester Research. "The technical differences don't matter. Adoption matters."


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