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.
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.
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.
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