Mobile Operating Systems

As we’ve discussed, the majority of apps are either being produced in native formats for (one or more) specific mobile operating systems, or in a hybrid format to be deployed across multiple platforms at once. So far we’ve focused on the time and costs associated with each option, as well as the evolution of hybrid development to match the performance and the consistency of native apps. But now we will look at this argument from a different perspective: what mobile devices and OSs are people using, and what effect will this have on the choices made by app developers in the future.

Rise of the Androids

In 2007, the first iPhone was launched, drastically redefining the term “smartphone”. Despite the high price-point, many users were attracted by the new technology, and the great experience delivered even by the early iterations of the iOS. As a result, many developers were also attracted to this emerging field of mobile app development, and with more apps and ways to use the devices emerging, early sales of the iOS devices soared.

In 2009, Google entered the market with the first Android phones. In two years, it had leaped ahead of everyone else in the smartphone wars. One reason for this was, again, the number of developers it was able to attract quickly. The open-source nature of the operating system makes developing native apps for Android devices considerably faster and cheaper than producing iOS apps. Plus, even with the addition of Swift, development for the iOS means either working on a Mac, or emulating it through Windows or Linux, which is less than ideal. The Android OS, on the other hand, is based in Linux, and native Android apps can be easily developed and tested on any system.

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This preference by developers for certain mobile operating systems also tells the tale for the other OSs on the market. Though the Windows OS is well-liked by both smartphone users and app developers, still very few apps are being developed for Windows. By the time this OS was in use, many had already invested their resources into developing for the Apple and Android operating systems, and were reluctant to diversify into another platform with far fewer devices and users. This had an impact on sales of course, as smartphones had become more important than ever as a platform for using apps, and popular apps could not be used on a Windows phone.

The battle of devices has now become a war of ecosystems, where ecosystems include not only the hardware and software of the device, but developers, applications, ecommerce, advertising, search, social applications, location-based services, unified communications, and many other things. Our competitors aren’t taking our market share with devices; they are taking our market share with an entire ecosystem. This means we’re going to have to decide how we either build, catalyze, or join an ecosystem.

– then Nokia C.E.O. Stephan Elop, early 2011 (before announcing a partnership with Microsoft)

Speaking of Nokia, I must at least mention the Symbian operating system: the leading smartphone OS before the giants took over. Development with Symbian was always seen as difficult, and the number of apps produced never came close to the numbers seen once Apple (and later, Google) came into the mix. This failure of the Nokia OS (especially in the North American market) was the main reason for adopting the Windows “ecosystem” with the Lumia series of Windows devices (and we can all see how that played out).

Making Sense of the Numbers

Given the figures in the above graphs (and many predictions expecting the number of Android devices continuing to rise), it is hard to see why app development isn’t even more skewed towards Android, and away from iOS devices. This is because sales figures don’t paint the whole picture. This second chart shows the number of mobile and tablet devices currently in use (global, April 2016).

As you can see, even though the sales for Android and iOS devices are above 75% and below 25% respectively, the percentage of users connected to each OS is a little closer. Also, some users are still using the Symbian and BlackBerry (and other) operating systems. Though these numbers will change over time (to be more in line with sales figures and projections), at present, there are still enough users to warrant developing apps for multiple platforms, though not necessarily for mobile operating systems other than Android and iOS.

Digital Fractal Technologies is an Edmonton, Alberta based software-development company that focuses on data-driven mobile applications. We develop both cross-platform apps as well as native mobile applications for iOS, Android, Windows & Blackberry. For a free app consultation, please contact us.