Android in 2013: Applications

Feeling the Bumps on Android's Head to See Its Future

The “Android in 2013” blog post series has looked at Android proper to date: on smartphones, on other devices, and the OS itself. Today, let's prognosticate on what may well happen in the world of Android applications.

Trying to predict what will happen for individual applications is well nigh impossible, so I am not even going to try that. Instead, I want to highlight where some trendlines will take us in three years' time.

The Android application space will grow at an unprecedented clip in 2010, but that will be driven by filling in product categories popular on iPhone/iPad but less so on Android. Notably, digital books are huge on iPhone OS, with a market category comparable to the whole of Android today. Those books are dumped into the iPhone App Store for visibility and distribution. Once the publishers of those books settle on an book engine for Android, expect them to pile on in, swelling the Android ranks while not significantly improving what's really available. By 2013, while iPhone will still have more apps, Android will be close enough (within 25%) that the difference will not be considered to be much of a competitive disadvantage for Android.

However, there will be a clear dichotomy of Android app publishers: those with connections and those without. You see that somewhat today, but it will increase over time. Device manufacturers will work with specific firms to get their apps up to snuff for new devices. Carriers will work with specific firms to promote their apps, to add “sizzle” to their specific Android devices. Google itself already has “developer advocates” helping specific firms improve their Android experience. For those firms that get into the club, this sort of attention will catapult them to the top reaches of popularity. Other firms or individual developers will continue to be on their own for in-depth technical support and marketing assistance, no different than today. The difference will be more in big players in Android helping to mint other big players in Android.

A countervailing effect will be the democratization of Android app development that HTML5 will offer. While HTML5 support is nascent in Android today, it will be first-class by 2013. An HTML5-based Web app will be on par with native apps in terms of user experience (e.g., icons in launcher) and possibly even access (e.g., via Android Market). This will be driven, in part, by Chrome OS and the Google Apps Market, both of which will drive Android and developers towards HTML5 for compatibility. There will still be many things that native Android apps will do that HTML5 equivalents will not. What you will see, though, is many more applications built using Web technologies by people who know next to nothing about Android APIs. This will be particularly true for apps that do not need extensive device integration and could leverage cross-platform compatibility with iPhone and other then-current devices.

HTML5 will also bring interesting new twists on the AT&T-style device lockdowns, where only apps from the Android Market can be installed. AT&T will probably continue attempting to twist Android into this partial third-party support, and a few other carriers worldwide will do the same. The key will be HTML5 — if HTML5 apps can be installed, in one form or fashion, regardless of these Market limitations, then the net effect of these lockdowns will be muted. Unfortunately, it is difficult to predict whether Android will kowtow to those in favor of the lockdowns to the point of preventing HTML5-based applications to be installed outside of the Market.

HTML5 and Market-only lockdowns will also hasten interest in alternative distribution options to get apps into Android users' hands. In the case of HTML5, users will expect to be able to get the “app” from the site publishing it, not having to jump through other hoops. The lockdowns will promote development of desktop clients — rough equivalents to iTunes — that use developer hooks to install apps, bypassing the Market-only limitations. And even classic Android developers will have ways to offer “one-click installs” off their Web sites, allowing users to get their apps however they wish, without users necessarily having to scan QR codes or get SMSes with links or the other hacks needed today.

This will not prevent, though, continued Market-related complaints from the developer community. The Android Market will continue to be the 800-kilo gorilla in the Android distribution chain. While the Market will go through a round or two of improvements in the coming years, what is unlikely to improve is communications with developers, the source of much ire. Combine that with Apple continuing to push the pace of iTunes and the iPhone App Store, and the Android Market is likely to remain second-class in 2013 without a massive infusion of effort on Google's part, of which we have seen no sign to date.

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