Developers are key to winning the tech wars

June 12, 2012

Many smartphone manufacturers draw from the same stylebook: Make it sleek. Make it black. But what may determine the winner of the smartphone wars is the apps.

Creators of these software programs are seeing a lot of love from Apple, Google and Microsoft as the companies race for supremacy in the mobile market. For their success, the tech giants need these developers, even the small ones, to make sure their app stores keep up with rivals and offer something special.

This week, Apple touted how well it has served attendees of its Worldwide Developers Conference, showing off a screen shot of a $5 billion check — what it’s paid developers in the past year.

At Microsoft’s TechEd Conference, also this week, the company courted developers to write programs for the app marketplace built into its upcoming Windows 8 system.

Google is expected to make similar pronouncements at its developers conference, Google I/O, at the end of the month.

“It’s a war for affections,” said Morgan Reed, executive director of the Association for Competitive Technology, a trade group for developers. “Developers are looking for where they’re likely to have the most love.”

People define that love in different ways. For many, it’s money.

Developers make four times as much with Apple than with Google’s Android, according to the analytics firm Flurry. Its surveys found that 69 percent of developers prefer Apple over Android.

“The numbers are better on Apple, and no company has made a platform so seamless,” said Ken Yarmosh, a developer who founded a company called Savvy Apps. “Apple controls the hardware, they control the software, and they control the delivery through the App Store.”

But dealing with the company can have its caveats.

Apple is notoriously controlling. For example, it dropped support for the multimedia platform Flash because it didn’t work with the company’s vision, leaving developers looking for other options.

Some, such as Jason Devitt, founder of the call-screening application Mr. Number, can’t even get their apps to work on Apple’s more closed platform.

“Mr. Number customizes dialing and messaging, but you can’t even touch the text messaging or core calling functions on the iPhone.” he said. The restrictions sent him to the more flexible Android platform.

Android comes with problems, too. The company sees 900,000 new activations a day. But the devices vary widely and use several versions of Android. So Google developers often have to duplicate their work.

“Android is very disparate,” Yarmosh said. “It’s still an ecosystem that’s developing.”

Microsoft is fighting hard to grab a piece of the mobile market. It has paid well-known developers such as Foursquare to write programs for Windows 8 and has provided support to help developers launch titles.

Greg Kostello, founder of the video-sharing app Givit, was surprised when Microsoft worked with his team one night until 1:30 a.m. to fix problems they had adapting their program to Windows 8.

Kostello, who used to work for Apple, was shocked. “If you were looking for the old, arrogant Microsoft, I didn’t see that at all,” he said.

Companies such as Microsoft and Research in Motion may recognize the need to woo developers, but it can be a hard sell.

“There’s so much momentum behind iPhone and Android,” Devitt said. “It’s like the fight to be Dr Pepper.”

Yet the app industry is still too young to write off any company, Yarmosh said. “It’s still the Wild West of technology right now.”

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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