Google romances the app developerApril 23, 2012: 5:00 AM ET
With developer interest in its android operating system trailing Apple's iOS, Google is turning on the charm.
By Alex Konrad, reporter
FORTUNE -- Consumers love Google's Android operating system: Some 50% of U.S. smartphone subscribers now use a device that runs on the Android platform, according to a recent Comscore survey. But software developers? Not so much.
Make no mistake, developers are building plenty of applications for Android; 450,000 apps are available on Google Play, the company's digital content store. But Apple's (AAPL) iOS operating system, with 30% of consumer market share, has the upper hand in apps. The App Store boasts over 585,000 titles, and some software makers confess they prefer Apple's platform because it is easier to use—and they need to make their wares work for only Apple's small family of devices.
So Google (GOOG) is working hard to romance the developer world. Three years ago the company tapped Billy Rutledge, a developer first hired to work with the search engine's advertising source code, to lead a three-person developer-relations team. Today that group has 28 employees, and it is growing. Part of Rutledge's job is a bit like running a business incubator: His team offers developers advice on how to build apps and meets with them to discuss business models. In rare cases the team will even court developers that have a big idea but no Android expertise, bringing them to the Google campus in Mountain View, Calif., for workshops.
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The staple of keeping developers happy has traditionally been live events such as industry conferences. There, Google and its competitors can give presentations and office hours with a high concentration of members of the industry. Rutledge says Android attended 75 such events last year. Even with his team deployed around the world, Rutledge notes that it's an ongoing challenge to reach developers closer to, say, Siberia than they are to Mountain View. That's led his team to set online interactions unbound by geography as a top priority for 2012. The team plans to roll out fifty online training courses per quarter compared to its current eleven; it's also scheduling more virtual office hours using the Google+ Hangout group video capability.
Just as its market is increasingly global, Android's broad reach across devices causes one of its pain points with developers: More than 1,000 devices worldwide use the Android operating system, which means software needs to take into account multiple screen sizes and the like. Trying to accommodate all those permutations is a strain on—or a deterrent to—smaller development shops. CRVN Interactive, a boutique app developer, says its clients often ask for their product to appear on both iOS and Android but back away from the Google offering upon hearing such development takes 10-30% longer, meaning a corresponding higher price tag. Much of that price can come from the burden of having to code and test across a slew of devices compared to the iPhone and iPad. Even large app makers such as Yammer and Evernote say it is a burden to code and test their Android offerings for a slew of devices. Rutledge says Google is working with Netflix (NFLX) to emulate the movie site's testing model. Google is attempting to group the wide field of Android devices into 10 or so buckets. Testing a representative of each group, developers can build compatible apps for the broad ecosystem without having to constantly order a new sample device.
Android disputes the notion that its development takes inherently longer than comparable projects over iOS, and Rutledge argues that Android-proficient developers can code faster than they would when switching to iOS. But with Apple as the standing benchmark, companies must decide whether to commit to such specialization. At Evernote, independent teams develop for each platform. "We almost like them to compete with each other," says, Phil Constantinou, the company's head of product. The engineers at Yammer try another tack: the company devotes equal resources to Android and iOS, and developers specialize more when a platform requires a unique solution. The popular travel website TripAdvisor has two teams, but split to cover each of its two major apps, not to focus on one system. Members of each team with more experience on a platform can then provide some customization to the final product.
"Android users really dislike it when their app looks like an iPhone's," explains TripAdvisor product chief Adam Medros. "They bought an Android for a reason."
Android users need not fret that they will soon have iPhone clones.. But according to Rutledge, Android's development offerings will be taking a baby step toward Apple's highly curated approach. While other mobile operating systems, including Apple's, offer developers basic tools, like blocks of code, that can save software engineers time and money, Google traditionally has taken a more laissez-faire approach. Rutledge says that is about to change. He says his team plans to share coding "best practices" that developers can copy for formulaic functions such as navigation. Such building tools would ease the developing burden for app makers of all sizes, but can especially help small companies focus resources on the functionality that might set their app apart in the marketplace.
"We don't want to go to the far extreme of cookie cutters, where all apps look the same," Rutledge says. "But shortcuts can help developers get to market." It might not sound all that romantic, but that's how a tech giant woos.
A shorter version of this story appeared in the April 30, 2012 issue of Fortune.