Should You Build Your App for iOS or Android?

The way the smartphone market has evolved, we now live in a world with only two viable options for a native mobile app: iOS and Android.

Yes, there are other options out there—such as Windows 10 Mobile—but most projects will want to stick with one of the two major platforms.

At first, you may be tempted to choose the platform you use for your personal phone, but that’s not always the right choice for you and your business.

In the long run, most companies that make the investment to build a native mobile app will want to have both a presence on both iOS and Android.

However, building an app for one platform is difficult enough. We don’t often recommend building for both iOS and Android at once.

Here are six questions to consider as you decide which one to build first:

1. Demographics: The Premium Market vs. A Large User Base

There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to choosing the platform for your mobile app. It all comes down to your target market’s demographics.

The average iOS user comes from a developed country and tends to have a higher income than the average Android user.

iOS devices also have a much higher average selling price than comparable Android devices, which translates to higher willingness to spend on paid applications and subscriptions.

Over the past 10 years, Apple has captured most of the “premium” segment and profits of the smartphone market, but this segment is relatively small, especially globally.

In the US, Apple controls about 40% of the smartphone market as of 2015. But in the global market, Apple controls only about 12% of the market.

If you are interested in building a digital product for the mobile demographic most likely to spend money on an app, you should build for iOS first.

On the other hand, if you are going after the largest install base possible, then you should consider building for Android first.

If your app is mostly targeted towards US consumers, iOS will be a good “default” option for your app. If your business is more globally oriented, especially towards Asia, Africa and South America, you will probably want to build for Android first.

If you’re not 100% sure on your target audience demographics, this means you should spend more time doing user research. After you’ve developed your user personas, you’ll have a clearer picture of where to find your target market.

2. Speed to Market and Iterations: The Android Tax

One of the biggest advantages to starting with one mobile platform instead of two is being able to quickly iterate on your core feature set and product-market fit. Once you understand what your market wants and start getting traction, you can take all your lessons learned to the second platform.

If you use your first mobile platform as a “testing ground” for your product strategy, the speed at which you can iterate on your app is very important. In this area, iOS and Android are quite different.

Android is an open-source platform, which means that it can be used by any manufacturer to run on virtually any hardware. This has been one of the main reasons why Android has gained larger global market share.

But Android comes with significant downsides to the development experience and the speed at which you can iterate on your product.

Android usually lags behind iOS in terms of adoption rates of its latest OS versions.

In addition, since Android can on a wide variety of hardware, it means that your development team has to support a wider range of screen sizes, resolutions and internal components.

If you’re developing an Android app, this usually means you have to spend more time developing and testing for these cases. Some people go so far as calling this phenomenon the “Android Tax”.

iOS, on the other hand, is good at limiting the number of devices and device types your software can run on.

iOS users also upgrade their OS relatively quickly when a new version of iOS comes out, so your development team doesn’t have to worry about supporting a wide range of operating system versions.

This all translates to iOS being a better platform for quick iterations on a product.

3. Approval Process: Android Faster, But iOS Is Closing the Gap

But wait a second, doesn’t Apple have a lengthy approval process to publish on the App Store?

Yes, compared to Google, Apple’s app submission and approval processes are lengthier and more stringent, although this gap has been closing in recent years.

4. API Access: Open vs. Closed

In Android, everything is “open by default.”

In iOS, everything in iOS is “closed by default.”

What does this mean? Not only is Android open source, but it also gives greater access to third-party developers into the inner workings of the operating system.

That means there are entire categories of apps and features that are only possible on Android.

Some common examples include custom app launchers and replacements for the stock messaging app, the stock email app, and browsers that don’t use the WebKit engine.

On iOS, these integration points are simply not available to third-party developers. Depending on what your app does, some features (or maybe the whole app!) will only be possible on Android and not iOS. It is also important to note that what you can and cannot build on iOS is a moving target that changes with every new release of iOS.

For example, before iOS 8, third-party developers could not build custom keyboards, but now they can.

5. Review Guidelines: Strict vs. Laissez-Faire

Both Apple and Google have app review guidelines that you should read. There are many things in common such as banning hate language, adult content, and anything that infringes on intellectual property.

Beyond these similarities, Google takes a laissez-faire approach to what they let into Google Play.

Apple has a much more opinionated stance when it comes to app review. If your application is truly innovative, you may find yourself having trouble at app review time.

For example, developer Smith Troughton-Smith created a prototype for windowing on iPad that would probably run into trouble at app review time—since Apple’s App Review Guidelines specifically restrict this type of app.

6. Ecosystems: Are “Adjacent Platforms” Important To You?

So far, I’ve been speaking about iOS and Android as if they were standalone platforms.

In reality, each platform is part of a much larger ecosystem that both Apple and Google provide to third-party developers.

This is important because both Apple and Google invest heavily in lowering the cost of developing for their “adjacent” platforms, once you’ve launched an app on either iOS or Android.

For example, if you’re a media company that just launched on iOS, you would be able to reuse a lot of the work you just did if you wanted to launch a related Apple TV app.

This is the list of “adjacent platforms” that Google and Apple provide. Almost all of them, with the exception of desktop, are still in their infancy—so they probably won’t be the deciding factor in deciding between iOS and Android:

  • Desktop: macOS vs. Chrome OS
  • SmartTV: tvOS vs. Android TV
  • Wearables: watchOS vs. Android Wear
  • Car Infotainment: Carplay vs. Android Auto

As I said before, some adjacent platforms are more important for some industries than others.

If you’re building a fitness app and would want to create an accompanying wearable app, you should take into account the Apple Watch’s relative success compared to Android wearables when choosing between iOS and Android.

It would be impossible to have an Android app work with an Apple Watch.

What About Cross-Platform Hybrid Apps?

We’ve assumed so far that you have to choose one platform or the other. But what if you could build a system that you could build once—then have it work for both iOS and Android?

This is a thought a lot of people have, and there are a lot of tools and frameworks to make this possible (but maybe not desirable).

Some of the more popular tools for cross-platform apps include Xamarin, React Native, Ionic and Phonegap.

Most of these platforms rely on web technologies to work on both platforms simultaneously. The ones that don’t rely on the web—most notably Xamarin and React Native—use an intermediate layer that then gets translated to a native iOS app and/or an Android app.

What we recommend to all of our clients is that if their application has anything to do with end-consumers, then going hybrid generally is not a good idea.

If you’re building an internal tool or a B2B application, maybe using a hybrid platform can be a good option.

B2C mobile users have gotten used to the higher user experience bar that native applications can provide.

Using a hybrid platform from the get-go will open a user experience gap that can often turn into a competitive disadvantage.

We also think using a hybrid platform from the get-go puts too much emphasis on market penetration at the expense of product-market fit, which can also put you at a strategic disadvantage.

What Does This Mean for You?

When you’re bringing a new mobile app to the market, one of the first decisions you’ll have to make is whether to choose iOS or Android as your first development platform. This decision is incredibly important to get right!

There are many considerations to keep in mind, such as your target audience, your projected business plan, and your budget.

While there are many factors to consider, we always recommend making this decision with data backed by user research. There are important user research tools that you can use to learn more about your target market such as user survey, user interviews, and persona creation.

Whatever you do, you should aim to understand your addressable market as fully as possible before you start design and development of a mobile app.

If you don’t know where to start for your specific market and your specific app, we’re available to help.

Pietro Rea