Android Grows as Primary Target for Innovative Developers

Android (s goog) has always had some apps that iOS (s aapl) didn’t, such as keyboard replacement software like Swype and SwiftKey. While Apple still holds a strong lead in apps, there is an increasing number of cutting-edge, innovative apps initially launching on Android before they go to iOS. It’s part of a larger build-up for Android Market, which is on pace to have more apps than Apple’s App Store later this year. But it highlights the unique appeal of the Android platform, which doesn’t make as much money for developers but is finding more interest from creative programmers, especially as hardware sales heat up.

In the last six months or so, I’ve seen — and been pitched on — a number of apps that consciously launched on Android first. Enterproid, Aro Mobile, ThruTu, Zazu, Contapps, Skifta, and RadioMe are just a few of the apps that bypassed iOS, and I’m sure there are many I’m missing. The growing interest from developers is due in part to the increasing success of Android phones, which are outselling iPhones (and every other platform, for that matter) and possibly the desire to simply target a space outside of Apple’s saturated App Store.

But a lot has to do with the advantages of the open platform of Android, which encourages more cutting-edge applications with a broader array of features in some cases. Apple’s limits on access to its hardware as well as its tougher review process also seems to be playing a role. It’s still easier to make money on iOS, and fragmentation is a headache for many Android developers, but for a growing number of developers, it makes more sense to start on Android first.

“You have more developers who love the openness of Google and don’t want to go through the iPhone funnel, they just want to create their own thing and get it out there,” said Lior Romano, the co-founder and CEO of Contapps, a contacts app. “Now with the growth of Android, the size of (Android Market) is now getting equal to Apple. If you develop free applications and want to get to scale and responses from users, Android is very inviting.”

Google has had a more open approach from the beginning, and that resulted in some innovative apps like home screen replacements and third-party browsers. But Lior said not all developers took advantage of the opportunity because the audience wasn’t there yet. But now, many are timing their apps to take advantage of their fast growth of the platform and are coming out with titles that make more use of some of Android’s architecture. Contapps, for example, offers a contact list replacement app that’s more visual, with gesture-based search, social integration and search and mapping built into the app.

Lior said building in Android offered more access to the core functions of the phone, the ability to integrate with more third-party APIs and good tools to build with. He said he was also worried about Apple stifling the app because it might be too close to the iOS native functions. “We want to be a one-stop shop for contacts and interaction; that’s a big goal and we need the openness of Android to undertake those possibilities,” Lior said. “With Android, you get a lot of access from Google and the opportunity to build something big, not something skin deep.”

That’s some of the allure of the Android platform. Developers can get deep into the guts of a device and build out a lot of apps that work with the existing the platform or simply replace its functionality. ThruTu, for example, allows users to send pictures, contacts, their location or a vibrating “prod” while in the middle of a voice conversation. Aro Mobile, which debuted first on Android, replaces the native contacts, email, search, phone and browser apps on a device with its own cloud-connected versions with semantic technology. Aro Mobile later launched on iOS, but because of the platform’s more restrictive nature, the app wasn’t able to fully replace existing functions. It has to work alongside them, undercutting some of its appeal. Other apps like ON, an address book app, also have had to be watered down to work on Apple’s platform.

Apple’s approach has been great forconsumers who are looking for very polished apps. And Apple’s control and sense of order has been part of why downloads have soared in the App Store. But it can be stifling for some developers looking to innovate in areas that Apple is less interested in, said Punit Shah, co-founder of Zazu, a personal assistant app that reads aloud news, social feeds, and emails, and is looking to help users plan for upcoming calendar events.

Shah said the Apple hardware is great, but he’s not able to do as much with it compared to Android. On Android, he gets easier access to dialer information and can incorporate contact lists from different sources without asking for additional authentications for each source. That has led to a more robust app, Shah said. Zazu recently completed an iPhone app, but there’s no guarantee that it will get approved. With Android, there’s no review process, so developers are assured they can launch on Android Market.

“As an entrepreneur, I want to make something new that’s ridiculous and provides value. But from a company perspective, it’s much harder to do that when you have too many variables where you can be shot down,” he said.

Andrew Toy, co-founder of Enterproid, an app that creates a partition between enterprise and personal data, said his company is open to all mobile platforms. But with Android’s growth in the past year, it now offers developers the ability to get traction with a sizable audience, which wasn’t the case early on. But he said his choice to launch on Android was also prompted by Apple’s review process, which can be a concern for some start-ups, as they must invest before they’re sure Apple will approve their apps. The review process for updates can also be harder for developers who like to iterate quickly and constantly test their apps, said Toy. And he said Android is more flexible with monetization options, he said — another bonus.

“Android gives us the ability to use agile development. We’re able to fix bugs, test new features, and release new versions very quickly. Android also allows us to explore different business models as we bring our products to market. This is especially important for a company like ours, where existing revenue-generation models like advertising or paid apps don’t fit well with our target market,” Toy said.

Now, fragmentation is still a major issue for Android developers. Lior said different screen sizes, custom ROMs and operator additions can wreak havoc on testing. And Apple is still a better place to make money, he agrees. But with device sales running high on Android, we’re likely to see more developers not just port iOS apps over to Android, but instead begin their work on Android. Experimental stuff, in particular, may start showing up more on Android. And we eventually may see a class of apps that are more robust on Android than on iOS. This may not do much to alter the momentum of each platform, but there’s an increasing chance we’ll see more really ground-breaking mobile apps on Android as time goes on.

Google still has to do a lot to ensure that the platform evolves well with more tools, enhancements and access to more APIs, something we’ll like hear more of at Google I/O next week. And the buying experience in Android Market needs to continue improving to make sure it reaches its money-making potential. But it seems like the early bet on Android’s more open design is increasingly resonating with developers and that can only mean more momentum for the platform as a whole.