Exceptions to the Android-First Myth

Steve Cheney's "Why Android First is a Myth" encapsulates many of the macro-level, rational reasons why startups still go iOS-first. The picture might look a little different at the micro-level.

October 30, 2013
Jonathan Libov

Steve Cheney's "Why Android First is a Myth" is an excellent survey of the reasons why, in spite of Android's greater market share, startups still build for iOS first. In reading Cheney's post, you put yourself in the shoes of a founder who has just raised a $1M seed round, and walk yourself through the rubric of decision-making that leads to the answer to this question: build first for Android or iOS? By all rational counts, you'd choose iOS.

This person you're putting yourself in the shoes of is an average, a composite of the average startup founder akin to those "this is the average face of someone from Norway or Egypt" posts that occasionally make their way around the internet. I think Cheney would agree that his is a macro-level view.

Let's switch to a micro-level view, deliberately selecting a few members of the set who are most likely to go Android-first:

  • Daniel comes from a modest economic background whose parents bought him an Android phone and tablet for college because they were less expensive than an iPhone and iPad. Daniel studies computer science and, like many developer types, is fascinated at the way he can make computing machines do things through code. Having learned in class how to make goofy Java programs on the desktop, he looks at his phone and thinks, "I can make this thing do stuff too!" He learns to build for Android and becomes expert at it.

  • Cynthia is an über-geek who's been programming since she was 12. By the time she gets to college she's adept enough to do stuff with kernels. She's built her own custom laptop running Linux or Windows and picks out an Android because she can tinker with it in ways she can't with an iPhone.

At the age of 25, both Daniel and Cynthia aspire to start a company and are at least in the mix to raise some seed funding for each of their respective ideas. They're embedded in an environment which favors iOS development for all the reasons Cheney lays out. Faced with a host of rational economic factors that favor iOS, will Daniel and Cynthia make their company's first product release an iPhone app?

Very unlikely. Their ties to Android are too strong. Even if they were willing to invest the time to learn iOS development, they just wouldn't have the same enthusiasm for it. If they manage to get investment, their investors (even if they use iPhones on a day-to-day basis) will have to live with the company going Android-first.

My point here is not to demonstrate how some startup founders will go Android-first — I'm sure Cheney concedes that some startups do or will go Android-first in spite of rational factors. My point is that some startups will go Android-first simply because non-rational values and personal allegiances inexorably tie them to Android.

This discussion of iOS- or Android-first then has to include questions like:

  • To what degree are iOS devices still an aspirational product among college students? Will Daniel be so unsatisfied with his Nexus devices that he opts to get a part-time job in order to pay for an iPhone or iPad?

  • How vital is iOS' advantage in being more beautiful and consumer-friendly? Is Cynthia doomed to fail because she overvalues "customizability" relative to a beautiful user interface?

  • How prevalent are iOS development classes in universities compared to the Intro to Programming courses that are often taught in Java?

  • What if the smartest people in Chris Dixon's "What the smartest people do on the weekend is what everyone else will do during the week in ten years" happen to skew Android?

All in all I agree very much with Cheney's macro-level assessment, and in fact I suspect that Apple is still winning the hearts and minds of young developers enough to sustain their advantage. Yet it's easy to imagine a number of micro-level, non-rational factors resulting in at least a few Android-first startups, making the iOS-first or Android-first outlook a lot less one-sided than it is today.