Developing for Android is a numbers game

The BBC recently released a new app, BBC Sport, for iOS. They have had a bit of a negative reaction from the Android community about not releasing the Android app at the same time (despite the fact it isn’t ready).

It’s strange to see more and more people complain that developers are simply “favouring” iOS, that even though Android has a wider marketshare it’s being ignored in favour of Apple. From a business standpoint, this makes no sense. Let’s use one of the numbers banded around in the comments from the BBC support app, iOS makes up about 20% of the marketshare in the UK. It’s close, CNET reports it as 28% and Android at 58%. Do people seriously believe that companies would ignore nearly 60% of potential users to target a user base half that? Of course not, if you do that then you’re not in business very long.

This means there must be other reasons why companies such as the BBC aren’t able to deliver Android apps at the same time as their iOS counterpart. So what are they?

BBC News ran an interview with Daniel Danker, General Manager of On Demand, back in December entitled “Answers about Android”. One particular quote from Daniel stands out:

”People write to us saying just that, why bother supporting older devices, why don’t you just start with – and then they insert whichever model of phone they have. But more than a quarter of our requests to iPlayer come from devices running Gingerbread. And the number one device contacting us is still the Samsung Galaxy S2, which can’t handle advanced video.”

Gingerbread is still the most popular flavour of Android, according to official figures from Google. I have a Samsung Galaxy I5500 as a spare handset. It runs Gingerbread. It’s woeful to use, extremely underpowered and even some of the bundled apps are sluggish.

Many of the comments were simply users venting, assuming that as the iOS app was released first it was somehow prioritised. I’d put money on the team who develop the iOS apps is smaller than the Android development team. It’s less about OS fragmentation (though that is an issue) but more about the sheer number of different screen sizes on devices that Android runs on. What runs on the Nexus 7 won’t be the same as what can run on the Kindle Fire HD. What runs on the SGS2 won’t necessarily work on the Nexus 4.

My I5500 has a 2.8” screen. You can’t just scale down an app that would run on a 3.5” or 4” display. Can you imagine how small the finger tap area would be? Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines specify that the touch size is 44x44px as the best target size, any smaller and you risk ruining the interface. This means you have to develop slightly different versions of the app depending on the screen size.

Samsung has 26 different screen sizes. 26. Twenty Six. How do you check if your app works across each screen size? You’d have to test each size, one by one.

Back to Daniel’s point about devices not supporting high quality video, Channel 4’s 4OD Android app does support the SGS2. In fact, this is what they say:

With our Android-optimised version of 4oD, you can catch up on viewing from the last 30 days and have access to a selection of our extensive back-catalogue of programmes.

We have tested against the following devices:

HTC Desire / HTC Sensation
LG Optimus 2X
Samsung Galaxy S II

Any devices not listed are supported on a ‘best efforts’ basis. Please contact us if you are unable to access 4oD from your device and we’ll investigate further for you.

Go to and you’ll automatically be redirected to the version of 4oD that works best for your handset.

So yes, Channel 4 does support the SGS2, unlike the BBC. But Channel 4 officially supports three devices which are the three they tested it with, none of them tablets. Yes, others may work but they’re in the “best efforts” category. That’s slang for “honestly, we have no idea if it works”.

Do you know how they “support” many Android devices? They require Adobe Flash to be installed. Last time I checked, Flash wasn’t doing too well.

The Beeb aren’t looking for supporting Android bit by bit. They want widespread support on as many potential devices as possible. If they can’t deliver this, they won’t deliver it at all until they’re ready. They certainly don’t want users to depend on a technology like Flash that has little future in mobile. They’re even planning to move away from it for desktop use too. They simply want the best experience for their users, regardless of platform. If that means certain platforms have to wait longer than others, so be it. If the Android app was released first as they were putting the finishing touches to iOS, I’d happily wait.