App Developers Get Royal Treatment As Tech's New Kingmakers
Published on: 12th Jun 2014
When Asus announced its first Android smartphones several months ago, the top five PC maker played up the product line's range of sizes, a new interface called ZenUI and an array of striking pastel colors.
But the company's announcement also included mention of a factory-installed feature that it didn't even make -- an app called Omlet Chat that was developed by MobiSocial, a startup comprising Stanford University computer science Professor Monica Lam and three doctoral students.
The deal meant "huge PR" for MobiSocial, Lam said. But she also sees the app as critical to the success of the launch: "They should pay us. It was a way to strengthen the company's foothold in mobile by giving users a way to exchange messages and photos without joining an external network - a capability that's particularly appealing to those concerned about privacy."
It's become a truism in the mobile world: An app ecosystem can make or break a device or an operating system. "Content is king when it comes to these devices because that's how the devices come to life," said Steve Augustine, manager of the Android developer initiative at Intel.
Developers have become, in the words of author and analyst Stephen O'Grady's 2013 book, "The New Kingmakers". The new development is that they're increasingly being courted not only by the likes of Apple and Google, but also chipmakers such as Intel, who want more apps to run natively on their hardware.
Building a following of app builders
At Intel, courting developers involves an extensive outreach program that's designed to foster a relationship with the developer community at large, a diverse group that ranges from established players hunting for the next business opportunity to weekend hobbyists chasing a dream.
"You also have to capture the hearts and minds of those folks in their garage because you don't know what's going to be the next big thing," Augustine said.
Intel has built an entire program around recruiting and supporting Android developers as the company seeks to get more of its x86 chips into smartphones and tablets running Google's mobile OS. While Intel powers only a handful of phones today, including the Asus ZenFone, there are a growing number of Intel-based tablets available. The company recently said there are over 130 tablet designs either on the market or coming to market from multiple manufacturers. Many of these will run Android.
Despite the fact that most Android apps are not written natively to run on Intel, the company says the vast majority of Android applications run fine on Intel devices using a unique bridging technology. Still, Intel wants more developers to write native code for the company's chips to eliminate the need for any bridging.
Augustine says developers need to know that Intel will offer support to help enable more and more applications optimized around Intel.
Intel's effort to win over developers has come in the form of developer tools, code samples, technical support and meetups. Augustine said he was taken aback when a Saturday meetup in Santa Clara, California overflowed an auditorium. In organizing Silicon Valley meetups and sponsoring major conferences, as it did at AnDevCon in Boston over Memorial Day weekend, Intel is attempting to foster closer affiliation by sharing expertise.
"This group of people is extremely hungry to learn," Augustine said. "They have this appetite that I don't think people really understand."
Selling tech to techies
This desire for information also stems from an unprecedented level of competition that has led developers to seek new ways to simplify the process of producing mobile apps.
"It's never been easier to self-publish software," said Geoff Warren-Boulton, founder of Appt.ly, which produces apps that allow users to doctor photos with fake beards, vampire fangs and other facial features. "But the competition is insane."
So while there are still examples such as Snapchat achieving a multibillion-dollar valuation based on its picture sharing app, more than 90 percent of apps are currently free, according to the market research firm Gartner. That number is only expected to increase in coming years. Of the apps that generate revenue, only 10 percent generate revenue of $1,250 per day, or roughly $450,000 per year.
Developers' desire for an edge has given rise to a cottage industry of software development platforms and engines whose existence is also linked to the whims of the developers to whom they sell.
Warren-Boulton said software development platforms are directly courting developers to adopt their solutions through email, pitches at conferences and online ads. Appt.ly routinely talks to the major platform providers, as the good ones offer intuitive plug-and-play tools.
One visible impact of the drive of platform vendors to attract developers has been the decline of HTML5 as a development platform. Although it can be used to create apps across ecosystems, the number of developers who reported they were "very interested" in HTML5 declined to 59.9 percent in November of 2013 from a high of 72.7 percent in July 2012, according to the Q4 2013 Mobile Trends Report by Appcelerator and IDC that surveyed 6,698 mobile developers.
Vendors just don't make supporting HTML5 a priority, preferring to push their own operating systems, according to the report.
Seeking an advantage in the gaming space, Appt.ly plans to build more apps on Unity, a cross-platform engine that allows developers to use a single batch of code to produce near-finished versions of apps compatible with numerous operating systems, gaming consoles and browsers.
Making life simpler for developers is a popular lure to get app makers to buy into different approaches to mobile computing. This tactic can have a snowball effect as developers who become early adopters do the hard work of resolving bugs and creating new workflows - tasks that developers in the next wave won't have to worry about.
"They should love people like us," Lam, the Stanford professor and developer, said of Intel.