Google's much-anticipated tablet operating system, Android 3.0 Honeycomb, made its splash in late February with the launch of the Motorola Xoom. Few Honeycomb-optimized apps were available at launch, but most expected they would follow soon after. What has gone wrong?
Four months on, the number of Honeycomb-optimised apps remains in the low hundreds. By comparison, there are over 100,000 apps optimised for the iPad.
So, what gives? Is there something especially hard about optimising an Android 2.x (Froyo, Gingerbread) app for Android 3.x (Honeycomb)? Are developers waiting for Ice Cream Sandwich (presumably, to be called Android 4.0), which will merge the tablet OS and phone OS into one? Is there just not enough demand? Are there problems with tablet app discovery in the Android Market? Is it just because Honeycomb is so new?
We delved into the mystery, reaching out to a number of prominent Android developers for the answers to these questions and more. In our quest for answers, we sought out primarily developers who have successful Android apps that are also available for the iPad, but don't yet have a Honeycomb version. And while we uncovered several significant reasons, virtually everyone agreed on the main underlying cause.
Design and Redesign
Honeycomb is optimised for a large, horizontal display--large, as in 8.9 inches or greater. (This is why you still don't see 7-inch Honeycomb tablets, though the expected Honeycomb 3.2 will fix that.) But with the larger display comes design challenges.
"It's much more a design problem than an SDK [software developer kit] problem," according to Bill O'Donnell, the chief architect at Kayak Mobile. "Or rather, it's not a problem, it's just work. You want to use your design resources where they get the absolute biggest return possible." He noted that an app for a 10-inch screen is (or, at least, should be) a totally different experience from an app for a 3.5-inch screen. This is particularly true when an app is primarily focused on text, like Kayak's.
All Android 2.x apps will run on Android 3.x, but oftentimes the text just looks awkwardly small and clunky; this is because the Android SDK does not automatically scale fonts, so developers must create their own code to get their fonts to scale up or down within their apps, which can be extremely tricky. When graphics are involved, you must use higher-resolution graphics and program them to be scalable, so that when they are on a larger screen they won't become pixilated. This, though, requires the size of your app to be larger, and it may put more of a strain on the device's processor. For Kayak, a major redesign would need to happen, which would take an investment of resources--and they want to make sure it will pay off before they commit to that.
For other apps, adapting to a larger screen isn't so much of a problem. Many game developers have opted to use third-party development engines such as Unity. "Unity takes out a lot of the grunt work and lets us port our apps to many different devices and platforms," says Marc Andreoli of GameResort, which makes the very popular Stupid Zombies game, among others. "We have to build our games in a way so that the graphics scale to different screen sizes, but Unity does the heavy lifting." This is a tremendous boon for a small company (GameResort is just a two-man team) trying to do big things. Unity has enabled them to get essentially the same experience across Android 2.x, Android 3.x (Honeycomb), and iOS devices.
Tommy Forslund of Polarbit (Raging Thunder II and Reckless Racing, among others) agrees. "We don't have a specific Honeycomb version out for any of our apps--largely because there isn't a need for one. We do have versions out which run full-screen in high resolution, but these work on any Android device, regardless of OS version." The Polarbit developers use the Fuse engine (a third-party development platform similar to Unity) to accomplish this, which allows them to target many different operating systems and screen sizes at once.
Third-party development engines can handle all of the scaling for developers (as long as the visual assets used are of a high enough quality) across many different platforms. The developer needs to write an app only once, and the third-party development engine translates that app to run on many different platforms. Without these third-party engines, you would have to hire other teams of developers to accomplish that versatility, which many smaller companies can't afford.
App Discovery in the Market
When you buy your shiny new Honeycomb tablet, it's logical that the first thing you'll do is go to the Android Market, either on your device or on your PC, to find some apps.
The problem is, it's tough to find Honeycomb-optimised apps in the Market. Beyond the Google-selected "Featured Tablet Apps" section, you have no way to search by OS. Sure, Google likes to say that 2.x apps should run on Honeycomb, but the reality is more of a crapshoot than that. And just because they run doesn't mean they're optimised to take full advantage of the screen size, resolution, status bar, or other Honeycomb-specific features.
Then there are the apps that are optimised for Honeycomb, but don't clearly mention this fact, if it's mentioned at all.
For example, Flixster's Movies app is actually optimised for Honeycomb, but you would never know that from the description (or any of the other text) in its Android Market listing. The only way you'd know it is if you just happened to scroll through all of the app screenshots until you got to the very last one, where you can see that it's clearly running in the Honeycomb environment.
This is absurd. There has to be a better way to search for Honeycomb-optimised apps. On this point, the developers all agreed that while the Android Market had made fantastic strides in just the last few months, it still has to step up its game.
Chris Cheung, product manager of SketchBook at AutoDesk, thinks Google "... has to address the user experience of the Android Market, because it plays a large factor in consumer confidence and purchasing. Right now users have to rely on other ways of finding information," he adds, referring to third-party sites such as Tegra Zone (Nvidia's site showcasing apps optimised for the Tegra2 processor).
Many other developers agree. Kayak's Bill O'Donnell says, "I think the Android market could stand a lot of improvements in a lot of ways. Its main problem is that it's one market for the whole world." For example, if you take a look at the Top Free apps in Transportation, you will note that most of the top apps are bus schedules/maps for Korea, the Czech Republic, and other international locales where Android is popular. While those apps may certainly be useful if you live in one of those parts of the world, it's doubtful that's what someone in St. Louis is looking for. Similarly, it's doubtful that someone using a Honeycomb tablet is searching for an app that isn't optimised for it and won't look good.
Waiting for Ice Cream Sandwich?
Many pundits have speculated that perhaps the holdup is in anticipation of Ice Cream Sandwich, which will theoretically merge Android's phone and tablet platforms, helping to end fragmentation, and which is due to arrive this fall. Why develop for one version of Android that will soon be enveloped by another?
To put it simply, none of the developers we spoke with indicated that the impending arrival of Ice Cream Sandwich is a factor. No one, it would seem, expects developing for Ice Cream Sandwich to be all that different from developing for Honeycomb. If it's going to be running on a tablet-sized screen, graphics will need to be scaled up, and the app will likely have to be redesigned for the new screen size. This is simply the difference between tablets and phones, not between Honeycomb and Ice Cream Sandwich.
Demand, Demand, Demand
All six of the developers we spoke with said, in no uncertain terms, that the reason apps have been slow to come to Honeycomb is that demand just doesn't exist for Honeycomb yet. And if there's no demand, there's no revenue--and no reason to be making apps yet.
Take the example of Dictionary.com, which has enjoyed roughly 10 million Android smartphone downloads, plus 2 million downloads for the iPad. Shravan Goli, the company's president, notes, "For the iPad, it's very obvious that it's caught on and that they are the leaders in the tablet market, so it makes sense for us to be building there." The company says it has seen measurable results in terms of engagement and monetisation on the iPad. "We're hoping for Android tablets to catch on, and we have the ability to play in the market as it develops, but we're waiting to invest until we see how the chips are going to fall."
This sentiment was echoed all around. Updating an app for a new screen size (unless it's a simple issue of scaling, as with the games mentioned above) requires a significant investment in time, energy, money, and focus on the part of a company. That, in turn, requires its developers to spread their resources thinner. This represents a risk, so before developers take that risk, they want a reasonable assurance of a return on their investment (or ROI). With over twenty-five million devices sold, the Apple iPad has already created a huge app market, and that means the chances of seeing that ROI are high. Exact figures for the number of Honeycomb devices sold are unknown, but it's almost certain that less than 1 million total have sold so far. The Asus Eee Pad Transformer, which is by far the best-selling Honeycomb tablet, has sold only an estimated 400,000 to date.
As O'Donnell says, "We're just waiting for someone to create that must-have [Android tablet] product that everyone wants for Christmas."
Future and Opportunity for Honeycomb Apps
Certainly, Honeycomb has had a sluggish start, and at this point there aren't enough users to send developers scrambling to churn something out. Before we pronounce the Android tablet app market dead, however, let us not forget that we have seen this before.
Tal Weiss, lead developer for AutoCAD WS (which has a very slick Honeycomb-optimised app) from AutoDesk, provided a nice history lesson. He thinks Android tablets are going to succeed, ultimately. "It was the same story with Android phones, where the first generation of phones were slow to take off... Their 1.x platform had a lot of trouble, but once they started getting into 2.x, the software got much, much better, and usage really exploded."
If we think of Honeycomb as Tablet 1.x, and Ice Cream Sandwich as Tablet 2.x, we may just see the same thing all over again. If history repeats itself and Android 4.0 is to 3.0 what Android 2.0 was to 1.0, we'll see a major app explosion. This puts a lot of pressure on Ice Cream Sandwich to be the giant leap forward everyone is hoping it will be, especially with the much-improved iOS 5 and Windows Phone 7 Mango updates coming out around the same time.
And if it does mean that developers are going to wait for the next step in both OS and hardware, it may take some time before Android tablet apps really start flooding in. It will likely be a slower trickle until a device comes out that everyone drools over. Honeycomb's reviews have been more positive than negative, but everyone seems to think it feels a bit unfinished. This means that there probably won't be a device that everyone wants until a major update comes out. With Ice Cream Sandwich not arriving until sometime in the fourth quarter, it could be a long, dry summer in the world of Android tablet apps. Those developers that do take the plunge will be rewarded, given that there's little competition right now--and new tablet owners are eager to get apps that show off their latest gadget.
As Goli said regarding Dictionary.com's app, "In any given month we're seeing greater growth on Android than on any other platform."