Why Android is losing in aviation

5 min read

As we do from time to time at iPad Pilot News, we recently asked our readers for feedback: what topics are important, what needs more attention, etc. As usual, we had a few requests for more Android content (and we will be covering some Android apps in the near future). But the surprising thing was how few of those Android comments there were.

This was just the latest evidence that Android is losing badly in general aviation.

Android logo

Android may be shipping a lot of phones, but it’s far behind in aviation.

But I read on the Internet…

Yes, Android has been shipping millions of phones lately, and that gets a lot of headlines. But that doesn’t necessarily translate to aviation. Our statistics at Sporty’s tell the story–when we offer the exact same app at the exact same price on both platforms, the iOS app will outsell the Android app by huge numbers. This is even true for free apps.

Major aviation app developers seem to agree–ForeFlight has no app for Android and WingX’s Android app looks to be on life support. Garmin is the exception, with a fairly comprehensive Android version of their Garmin Pilot app for iPad and iPhone. But even this app usually lags the iOS version in terms of features and upgrades.

There are certainly thousands of pilots who are active Android users, and there are plenty of aviation apps in the Google Play Store. But overall, these pilots are in the minority.

Now before before this devolves into a holy war, let me assure you I’m not trying to make a cultural statement. I’m not suggesting Apple’s business model is better than Google’s and I’m not suggesting iPad pilots are better than Android pilots. In fact, I think most people invest far too much in the Apple vs. Google argument.

The truth is both platforms (and companies) have pluses and minuses. I’ve used both over the years. Right now, my mobile devices are all Apple because I think they’re making excellent hardware. But my email, calendar, document storage and search are all by Google because they are making excellent software. It’s a choice based on what works for me, not some attempt to define my personality based on brands.

iPad Mini and Nexus 7

The 7″ iPad Mini and the Nexus 7 tablet–the next battleground?

Some reasons

So why is Android so successful in general yet so unsuccessful in aviation? There are plenty of reasons, including inertia, the FAA approval process (particularly important for pro pilots) and the power of personal recommendations in the tight-knit community of pilots. But two stand out: tablets and the nature of aviation app developers.

What gets lost in all the talk about phone shipments is the importance of tablets–that’s where the battle is being fought. While smartphones are getting incredibly powerful, they are still little more than backup in the cockpit. It was the introduction of the iPad that took aviation apps from a novelty to a revolution. With a 10″ screen (and now a lot of 7″ screens), digital charts were finally readable enough to replace paper.

And in the world of tablets, the iPad has a dominant position. Android tablets weren’t even available for a while after the iPad’s launch, and most of the early ones were woefully under-powered for high-end uses like aviation. Google has tacitly admitted this, and has started designing its own hardware, including the Nexus 7 and Nexus 10. These are worthy competitors to the iPad, but by now Apple has a three year lead. In that time, they’ve sold nearly 100 million iPads.

If Apple is winning the hardware war, they’re also winning the software side. The reasons for this are partly personal and partly practical. On the practical side, it just makes good business sense in most cases. With so many iPads out there, app developers have made the rational decision to create iOS apps first, assuming there will be more potential customers.

But since many aviation app developers are smaller companies, they often stop at the iPad and never get around to Android. If you’re Facebook, you have the resources to create an app for both platforms (and Windows and Blackberry, too). But if you only have 1-10 developers on staff, it’s a different story. Creating an Android app isn’t a small step–it’s usually almost 100% more work to do it well. These resource constraints only get worse as apps add features and get more sophisticated over time. This makes bug fixes, upgrades and support more time consuming.

Android versions

Android devices are badly fragmented, making it more time-consuming to support.

The problem is even worse because of Android’s terrible problem with fragmentation. When Apple releases a new version of iOS, over 75% of users typically update within a month or two. On Android, the number is under 20%. One reason is that many older phones and tablets are “orphaned,” unable to ever update to the latest version of the operating system due to hardware or carrier limitations. The Android developer is forced to support a much larger number of hardware/software combinations. That’s expensive and time-consuming.

The end result is that, forced to choose one platform, more developers are choosing iOS.

All is not lost

Android certainly isn’t fatally flawed, and only a fool would write off a smart company like Google. Besides, it’s axiomatic that technology moves fast, so what’s true today isn’t necessarily true tomorrow. Samsung in particular is closing the hardware gap, and Google is suddenly very serious about good design in their apps.

At Sporty’s we’ll continue to develop apps for Android; we just completed one for Sun ‘n Fun and more are coming. But the reality is, Android has a long way to go to catch iOS in aviation.

While some people view that as a bad thing, I disagree. Even if Android never equals iOS in aviation, we can still have plenty of competition within iOS. Just look at how fast features are being added to the major apps for iPad, and how many accessories are hitting the market. The hardware platform is only a small part of the overall experience.

What do you think? Can Android ever catch iOS in aviation? Does it matter? Add a comment below

28 replies
  1. Bert
    Bert says:

    I have the iPad3, Asus Transformer 10, Nexus7 and a Samsung S3! I fly with Nexus 7 with Sky Map and all feature to navigate and as backup the S3! The Nexus 7 display is much more better as the iPad mini (more resolution!) and the iPad3 (to yellow!)! Sorry, i think, iOS is a losing system! Its only a question of time!

  2. Matt E.
    Matt E. says:

    I think you touched on the biggest issue with Android: the updates. I don’t think the orphaned devices are as big a problem (there are some very junky Android devices) as the way Google handles its ecosystem.

    I have in the last year used about 10 different models of Android phones that will never see the latest distribution of Android. It’s not an issue of performance–half of them run it well if you can hack them– but Google allows the phone companies (Verizon, AT&T, etc) too much leverage. When an IOS update is released it is available that day to (almost) every IOS device available (some are killed off). When Google releases an update, it might only be available on one or two devices for the next 6 months or year.

    Just look at the Galaxy Nexus for Verizon, just 2 weeks ago you couldn’t get 4.2 on it–That’s more than four months to update a “Nexus” device. The Nexus devices are the ones that are supposed to take care of this exact problem and that just doesn’t bode well for Android in my book.

    I guess that’s the beauty of controlling both hardware and software, but I still think Google is capable of doing better and that in doing better they could make Android much more competitive.

    • Matt E.
      Matt E. says:

      For the record, I’m not biased against Android. I love the Nexus 7. I just want Google to start acting like the heavyweight that they are, because they really could give Apple a run for their money if they tried.

  3. Joe B
    Joe B says:

    I use a Thrive now having tried and ditched the IPad, and have been very satisfied with the aviation apps I use with the device–I prefer Naviator. In my experience, the Android platform are much more versatile than the Apple ones (usb access, etc). I have been frustrated with the lack of Android software support from the aviation communities such as Sporty’s and even AOPA (until recently), but I think that can change.
    The aviation community is a somewhat first mover market, as well as willing to pay more for similar capabilities. Also, Apple has very good brand loyalty–something that sometimes has me scratching my head when the prices are so much higher and the capability is similar. Apple has done a commendable job of capturing a good portion of the aviation community early just as Garmin has done with the GPS world. I am seeing however, more and more Android based platforms–especially with the introduction of the larger screen Samsung products–into the cockpit. I believe that if Aspen would introduce a “connected cockpit” version for the Android as they have for the Apple, they would see a significant shift in sales.
    I believe in the long run, Android will be on top…it just will take time.

  4. Tom
    Tom says:

    I have both the iPad mini and the Nexus tablet. They both have issues but overall the Nexus is far more user friendly. If there were more aviation apps for the android market I would prefere to us the tablet. But, alas, that is not the case and so I am forced to use the iPad in the cockpit. Almost sounds more like a market monoply rather than a software issue to me.

  5. Mike Gaffaney
    Mike Gaffaney says:

    The reason for so few comments from android users is that when we see new apps for the pads they are always for the ipad. We immediately delete the page because there is never anything for android!

  6. M milam
    M milam says:

    I have switched to the garmin app on both my ipad and my Note 2. I use both as situatioan awareness, as neither would i count on as a primary device. I think the kindle would be a better approach plate device if it wasnt so difficult to transfer to. Just my 2c.

  7. Dennis
    Dennis says:

    Same as above, I have an Ipad mini and a Note 2 with Garmin pilot on both. Works well in the cockpit. I’ve had a few of each divice. Gotta say, I like the Androids versatility, and the apples stability. If I had to make a choice? Android.

  8. Olav L.
    Olav L. says:

    Interesting to read all the “Android” replies here….
    Recently, I switched over to a “complete Apple” outfit (McBook Pro, iPad, iPhone4) and just loving it. The exchangeability between all 3 units and the availability of Aviation apps is amazing. I am an Airline Pilot and we use iPads now as Electronic Library. Apple has gotten access to a big market now since many airlines are applying for similar libraries and Android is far behind the power curve. Also, many companies use Apple in their dispatch offices. Simply because the Apple PCs have more powerful processors and are far more reliable than Windows and Android platforms.

  9. kaolam
    kaolam says:

    Everything I read is only valid for the USA. Outside we have no weather, no radar, no ads-b. 90% of all the apple apps are useless in the rest of the world. That’s why we use android, no extra GPS receiver, no wires, and so on. It is only for moving map, the rest is pilotage, deadreckoning and steamgages.

    • Rickpilot67
      Rickpilot67 says:

      Ditto here. For example neither Garmin, nor Foreflight nor WingX even have a measly map outside the US. Only Jeppessen do, but it’s pricey. I use Air Nav Pro, which comes with a rather outdated WAC chart for Chile. Do you know of any other good alternative for us, “aliens”?

  10. Scott
    Scott says:

    Follow the money trail… Dealers don’t like to stock two or ten different products. It is cheaper for Sportys to promote one standard design, even if the other is superior in the long run. There will be no competition and advancement if pilots stop buying Android or Windows systems.

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      As a developer there are a lot of things to like about Android. I wish it were more successful in terms of sales. It’s simply not right now. Maybe that will change.

  11. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    Remember the old Betamax vs VHS wars? Who won? Not the better product (Betamax) but the one that was more user friendly, less expensive, and not monopolized by one company.
    In this case Sportys pushes the iPad almost to the exclusion of any Android app. So who is reading their stories, answering polls etc. Not the Android crowd.
    I don’t go to Sporty’s for apps for my tablet, I go to the Google Play Store. If Sporty’s carried more Android apps they would sell more.
    Heck Sporty’s should offer the many free apps to get buyers to their web site, like a loss leader at a retail store. Get them in the door.
    Right now Foreflight is the best aviation app. But for how long? And when other apps like Garmin Pilot catch up and Foreflight doesn’t even have a horse in the race, no android app, how long will they survive?
    Apple got the head start, but with a product costing 3 times as much as the android product and the android apps gaining in strength, where will the market be in a few years?
    In a few years most users will have abandoned their old tablets for new ones. Same as we do with computers, laptops, phones etc. If the android apps catch the ipad apps, which they will do, and the hardware is 1/3 the cost, where will the ipad be?
    Companies like Sporty’s, and Foreflight will be caught lacking with a falling market.
    There is an old saying about history. “Those that don’t learn their history are doomed to repeat it”. Remember Sony Betamax vs VHS. Bought any Betamax tapes lately?

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      What if Android is Betamax? To me, the more appropriate analogy is Coke and Pepsi–because there’s room for both in the market. This is not zero sum, it’s a debate about who has more market share right now. That’s all.

      Like I said in the article, I’d love to see Android take off more in aviation. We continue to develop Android apps (including free ones) and sell Garmin’s Android app (which is getting better).

  12. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    To quote your article,
    “As we do from time to time at iPad Pilot News, we recently asked our readers for feedback: what topics are important, what needs more attention, etc. As usual, we had a few requests for more Android content (and we will be covering some Android apps in the near future). But the surprising thing was how few of those Android comments there were.

    This was just the latest evidence that Android is losing badly in general aviation.”

    Well what do you expect from a iPad forum? You aren’t going to get much in the way of Android comments and I don’t believe Android in the long run is losing badly in general aviation marketplace.
    Garmin is not stupid. Why do you think they developed an app for Android?
    Coke or Pepsi? No more like PC vs Apple, Betamax vs VHS. Eventually one will dominate.
    My point was and is that developers should meke apps for both platforms or they will be left behind. Retailers such as Sporty’s should give just as much emphasis to Android as they do to iPad or they will also be left behind.
    I order from Sporty’s, they are a good company, they mostly do a good job in their selection of merchandise. But in the case of tablets, apps and hardware to support such, they are lacking. But hey that is OK, someone else will and is taking up the slack.
    As for Android becoming the Betamax? Possible, but we Americans tend to vote with our wallets, hence the reason Wal Mart exists. We don’t demand quality, we demand cheap. And if one product gives quality and price, it usually wins.

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      “My point was and is that developers should meke apps for both platforms or they will be left behind.” Easier said than done. I’m sure most app developers would like to, but that’s no small task (at least to do it right). Even Garmin has struggled mightily with their Android app. I’m not saying you’re wrong here, but it’s not just checking another box to make an app work on the huge variety of Android devices.

  13. Roland L
    Roland L says:

    Apple does not have better processors actually they are way behind the curve on that. The new samsung note 8.0 will be the best tab on the market and aviationmaps app is very very good. I like it the best out of all the apps and I have had foreflight, garmen and naviator

  14. R. Bullock
    R. Bullock says:

    I fly in a 135 operation which the FAA has only approved the iPad with Foreflight. I carry in reserve my own Nexus 7 with the Garmin Pilot program.
    The cost of the Android, Google Nexus 7, 32Gb with Internal GPS is half the price of the iPad. Garmin has come a long way and I do not see much difference between it and Foreflight. The Nexus 7 has a crisp brighter display and lasts all day.The internal GPS in the cockpit is flawless while Geo referencing the maps and plates with Garmin. No issues with the Garmin or the Nexus in a year of operations, 135 or in my PA30 part 91 ops.

  15. P Sissons
    P Sissons says:

    I agree with most of your points. For the most part it is “build it and they will come” problem; ie. the developers will build apps for the Android platform if they see the opportunity. I use both iOS and Android in aviation. In fact I have both the iOS and Android version of Sporty’s E6B app, which brings me to another important issue. Often when apps are ported to both platforms, it seems that the more polished version ends up on iOS with a rough-edged version showing up on Android usually quite a bit later. Your E6B app is a prime example of this. This Android version has a number of bugs in it that have never been fixed and the UI is just not as polished as it is in the iOS version. I suspect that the reason is that the Android community is just not valued as highly by developers.

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      Interesting comments. Here’s my perspective – our lead Android developer is a passionate pilot and Android guy. We didn’t port the app at all; it was written from scratch for Android.

      The UI and bug issues are a result of the fragmentation issue. In order to support the mind-numbing variety if screen sizes, screen resolutions, processor speeds and OS levels (2.2 up to 4.x) we have to cater to the lowest common denominator. There just isn’t the opportunity to refine the UI as much without abandoning a huge percent of the market.

      Kind of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario.

  16. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    Yet at the same time Garmin, FltPlan and others have very good apps for both. I think the problem comes in that some developers are just putting all their eggs in one basket. Maybe we as pilots are simply too used to high prices for everything aviation related. But when I can get a more capable tablet with better features for less that a third what an Apple costs, believe me I’m sticking with a Android based tablet.
    Operating systems continue to evolve, just look at the problems with Apples new OS.
    Unfortunately for the other developers if they don’t make a product for my tablet, there are companies that do, and brand loyalty does count for a lot, then I will never have the opportunity to use their product.
    Also keep in mind I would be willing to bet the vast majority of pilots use their tablets as a secondary back up to their GPS or other devise, so it is not primary. So cost and features both drive me to the Android device.
    The whole thing is a shame really.

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      Jeff, I think it’s important to remember how good we’ve got it. Just 5 years ago, we would have spent $2500 for a GPS that could do what these tablets do now. We probably would have spent $500-1000/year for paper charts.

      Even the “expensive” iPad and its apps are a ridiculously good deal compared to the recent past. I think we should be thankful for that, regardless of the OS we fly with.

  17. Michael
    Michael says:

    I have personally tried very hard to use only Android and was very resistant to buying Foreflight because it was only made for Apple. Truthfully I was angry about it, they were totally resistant to the idea of making an android version and as I live in Canada, they were going to be the first and only option for VNC’S etc for a long time. I hate Apple because they choose to rip off the client for what should clearly be included in a product.. Nexus 7 pad with gas etc $179, the equivalent in Apple $549!!! Ridiculous! The minute they make an android version of what I need, Apple will never see another dollar from me. The stupid Ipad mini can’t even take extra memory, so I had to delete everything but Foreflight to be able to update! My Nexus 7 can take extra memory no problem for 1/3 the price. Did I mention I HATE Apple? And BTW, I used to run Apple until I became so disgusted in how they rape you for the “extras” and under deliver for too much money.

  18. shane
    shane says:

    many valid points here but a simple fact that remain for those who are more techy will know. apple is not any more powerful then android in fact, devices have been made for android that are more powerful then the iPhone or ipad. many common “adults” or even less techy people, the iphone and ipad have always had a more user friendly interface and well simply

  19. Scott Best
    Scott Best says:

    I do accelerated 7-day IFR training and have had the opportunity to see and use many different tablet configurations. The majority of pilots come to me with IPads running Foreflight or WingX, but many finally opted to take their checkride using paper charts anyway. One thing the universally like is my panel setup, with a Nexus 7 tablet mounted just to the right of my instrument stack running Garmin Pilot and interfaced with a GDL 39. The tablet is easy to use, the display more crisp than the Ipad, and the size is perfect.

    Aside from the very nice Garmin Pilot, there are other good program like Avilution, which is also less expensive, and even the FREE Avare application that runs quite nicely on the Android platform.

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