Is The Only Way To Beat Android To Use Android?

Depending on how you look at the smartphone world, Android is in the driving seat. By other measurements, it’s comfortably in second place. But not every company is happy to use Android in their smartphones, and 2013 will see a number of alternatives. Why are many of them relying on Android to break free from Android?

Take the latest challenger in the smartphone world, BlackBerry’s Z10. The number of applications for the BB10 platform has been promoted heavily, and while questions remain about the quality of the apps compared to the quantity, reaching 100,000 available titles in time for this weekend’s US launch is impressive.

BlackBerry are cagey on how many of these are retooled Android applications in their recent press releases, but at the start of February the total was around 40%. If that’s still true, over 40,000 BlackBerry apps are derived from Android.

Jolla, the Finnish start-up with a significant number of former Nokia employees, is behind the Sailfish OS, which is expected to launch on hardware during 2013. That OS also promotes compatibility with Android applications, through the Alien Dalvik layer.

And then there’s Tizen. Oft mentioned as Samsung’s ‘Plan B’ to escape a smartphone world with their own operating system sports, the OpenMobile application compatibility layer will allow Android apps to run on Tizen. The huge library of titles that Galaxy users currently rely on should still be available on Galaxy/Tizen.

While other new platforms are striking out on their own (notably Ubuntu Touch and Firefox OS), it is notable that three of the ‘new’ platforms that are likely to be successful will be relying on the existing pool of Android applications and developers to give consumers confidence that they will have the application they want on a new handset.

Due to incumbency and age, both iOS and Android have a significantly larger pool of applications than any other mobile platform. The third platform, Microsoft’s Windows Phone, has been available for close to three years and has not made significant inroads into the volume of their competitors, with 150,000 titles announced by the company at MWC, and third party estimates (from All About Windows Phone’s app directory) setting the mark slightly higher at 175.000. The Google Play store is now over 700,000 apps, and Apple’s iTunes Store is over 775,000

Any OS launching into the market is going to be seen as weak by many consumers if their app count is under 50,000. Even 100,000 is nothing more than a small bind to get into the smartphone game.

Short of spending countless millions pre-launch to bring developers on board (and even then it’s unlikely you would get the big names such as Spotify, Pandora, Instagram, and Netflix, to name four), smaller boutique OS houses are going to need a pre-rolled collection from somewhere to bootstrap their app offering. They’re not going to go to Windows Phone or iOS.

For the larger companies looking to increase their portfolio, they don’t want to alienate existing customers expecting to have the same experience. In the case of Samsung, the TouchWiz UI is likely to be ported to Tizen, and people with a Galaxy/Tizen are going to want the same apps. Being able to leverage the Android app catalogue will be an immense help.

Android as an OS is not going to go away, and while there is a danger that smartphones which can run Android apps will start to cannibalize the market, that sort of timescale is a good two or three years down the line (and there’s a lot could go wrong on both sides in that timescale). What it will do is continue to create a halo effect with developers. Looking to work on a mobile platform? There’s even more reason to learn Android OS. Once you learn that, you’re going to want to reach as many devices as possible. You might target the boutique OS handsets, but I’m sure that half an eye will be on the main Google Play store and the market share it represents.

The repurposing of Android apps suits the new entrants to the smartphone market. It provides another incentive to join the ranks of Android developers. And it continues to push the idea of Android as ‘generic’ smartphone platform everyone defaults. That’s a win for everybody in the Android world, as well as those looking to break free.