Lessons Learned: Launching an Android App

January 28, 2014   |   Posted in   by  

Now that our Android app has been out for a few weeks, we wanted to pause, take stock, and ask ourselves what it means to be a “mobile first” tech company in 2014. How do the big mobile platforms compare? Android and iOS are different beasts, but some of the differences we’ve noticed were surprising. Check it out!

Rankings, Downloads, and Ratings, Oh My!


iOS has historically taken into account the number and rate of downloads when ranking apps. Back in August, however, Apple started taking into account the rating of the application as well, something that Google has done in the Play Store for a while. Even though this brings the two platforms closer, differences remain. iOS ratings get reset after every release, whereas rating for apps in the Play Store are retained for the life of the app.

It’s not just ratings that are different, though. When the Apartment List iOS app debuted in the App Store, it was ranked in the top 10 which provided us with a healthy number of downloads right out of the gate. Coming off the App Store experience, Android was a real surprise: Apartment List debuted on the Play Store ranked at 136, and only had a couple of downloads in the first day. So, new app discovery in the Play Store posed much more of a challenge. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem, since Google’s algorithm boosts ranking by tracking both installs and ratings, and it’s tough to get either if folks aren’t finding your app!


Android: Releases Ahoy!


If you’ve ever done web development, especially in the small (say, a few dozen servers), you can get pretty spoiled deploying as needed when issues crop up in the code. Release a few times a day? No problem! Coming from that background, the mobile development release cycle on iOS can be a bit of a shock. With an average of four-day wait times for app approval, getting fixes out in a timely fashion can be challenging. At the very least, development cycles have to be planned fairly carefully to time feature releases well.

Not so on Android. In the six weeks since we’ve released the Apartment List app to the Play Store, we updated roughly 15 times, both for scheduled releases as well as quick follow-ups to releases that had a bug or didn’t operate quite the way we expected. In such cases, we had no problem getting the changes rolled out to users within six hours. This is a boon on those days where you realize the latest release broke a feature on some devices.


Android’s Rubik’s Cube: Fragmentation


Android’s fragmentation is oft-cited as a source of woe for developers. It’s true: if you’re writing an app that records audio, takes pictures or depends on pretty much any sort of device-specific functionality, Android presents some challenges. Even if you’re writing a more basic app, but want to take advantage of the latest UI paradigms or themes, targeting older devices requires a bit of special handling.

For Apartment List’s Android team, it was vital that we reach as many users as possible while still delivering a solid experience, so we targeted Android 2.3.3, which was released back in Feb 2011. Given that many carriers offer free upgrades after two years, targeting 2.3.3 made sense. So how bad was it targeting an OS from almost three years ago?

We had to include a compatibility library, and we specifically chose libraries for the HTTP request stack that had excellent support for Android 2.3 (Volley, in case you were wondering). Those details aside, there are a handful of places in the code where we changed behavior for compatibility, but by and large, targeting over 3000 different phone models wasn’t too difficult, which is pretty impressive, if you ask me.

That’s really great news, since Android users routinely don’t get the latest updates that Google makes to the OS, and, as Google announced in 2011, OS updates are really only expected for devices that are newer than 18 months old.


It’s All About the Ecosystem, Baby!


So how do all these technical differences add up in the marketplace? Many of the areas that are heralded as weaknesses for Android (slow upgrades and fragmentation come to mind) are the product of a diverse ecosystem of devices. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the growth statistics on a global basis for iOS and Android. How much growth? Well, IDC’s November press release says the entire smartphone market grew 39% between 2012 and 2013. Whoa!

One of the biggest ways in which that diversity manifests itself is in the average price of Android devices versus iOS devices. Another interesting tidbit to come out of the press release was price differences between iOS and Android devices. It turns out that the average iOS device runs about $635, versus only $268 for the average Android device.

How is all that smartphone market growth possible? Well, remember when I mentioned growth statistics? It turns out the mass market is fueling the growth of the mobile sector, and the mass market likes cheaper devices. Even back in 2011, OS X Daily reported that iOS users were 67% more likely to make over $200k/year than Android users. This same phenomenon was reiterated slightly differently in March 2013, when ComScore revealed that 24% of Android users had income over $100k/year, versus a whopping 41% for iOS users.

The flip side of those statistics is that there are only so many folks making more than $200k/year, right? So how do we achieve that 39% figure? That’s right: at the low end of the spectrum, where the cheap Android devices are sold. At the end of the day, pricing differences really create different markets, and that means that, taken as a whole, Android users spend less shopping from their mobile phones, including on apps (and in-app purchases!) than their iOS counterparts.

But that’s OK with us here at Apartment List. We’re here to help people find a great place to live, no matter what device they use. So head on over to the App Store or Google Play and give the app a whirl. We bet you’ll like what you find!

Rick Dillon

Director of Engineering, Android at Apartment List
An avid programmer, writer and all-around tech-enthusiast, Rick is passionate about building technology that integrates seamlessly into our lives to provide information when and where we need it most.In his spare time, Rick enjoys scuba diving, photography, and, of course, more programming.

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