The state of the Android platform: from monetization to China to the Nexus 7

As Google’s annual developer conference I/O winds down today, it’s clear Google is trying to evolve Android — not only as a platform, but as an experience for both users and developers.

The company unveiled beautifully designed devices like the Nexus 7 and the Nexus Q to show us Android can provide an elegant media consumption experience for consumers. Meanwhile developers saw the first preview of the Jelly Bean 4.1 operating system, demonstrating how far the platform’s capabilities and design could be taken.

Yesterday we had a chance to have an in-depth discussion with two of the key people behind Android — Google Play engineering director Chris Yerga and Android developer relations lead Billy Rutledge — asking them to weigh in on everything from how developers can make money on the platform to what Google’s plans for Android in China.

Inside Mobile Apps: Android has long been burdened with reputation as a platform that doesn’t monetize very well. I’ve seen more and more examples to the contrary recently, so why do you think this idea persists?

Chris Yerga, engineering director for Google Play (pictured right): That’s a tough one. It’s hard to get into the minds of people and what they’re thinking. What we know is we’ve been doing a lot of things to expand monetization options for developers. We’ve launched in 130 companies for paid apps in the last year, in-app billing, carrier billing. After my talk yesterday a lot of people had questions for me. The first person that came up said “I just want to say thank you. I make my living selling Android apps and all the stuff you’ve done over the last year is making my life so much easier.” I’ve had a number of conversations like that over the last day or so. I definitely think that people are making a go of it. We had some stats yesterday about Android users having the highest average revenue across all app stores. The data that we have and what we hear from developers is inconsistent with this notion out there.

Billy Rutledge, Android developer relations (pictured right): I would kind of echo that as well. My responsibility is to work with developers and help them understand the right way to build applications. It includes a lot of best practices ranging from design to looking at device efficiency and application performance. We work with a lot of developers around the world and quite often we hear great success stories from them on monetization. But I think that some of the features that have rolled out into Play recently around in-app billing, subscriptions, and more direct carrier billing are making it even easier. We hear quite a lot of good stuff from developers on a regular basis and it’s inconsistent with what I hear in the press a lot.

IMA: I think a lot of the reason this idea persists is because Apple shares numbers like “$5 billion paid out to developers.” Do you have any more specific numbers to share around Android monetization? Has monetization increased in the last six months?

Yerga: We don’t have those statistics to share but the thing we can say is it certainly has been growing in terms of the number of devices, the number of apps we have in the store and the number of apps we’re selling, so clearly everything is growing.

IMA: The other thing people say about Android is that it’s really fragmented. Things like the new Android PDK are addressing it, but how much of a problem does Google see this as? Do you see it as the tradeoff for having an open platform?

Rutledge: As more and more developers engage with the platform for the first time, they’re discovering it provides really nice mechanisms to build applications that run across the different shapes and sizes of Android devices. But it’s new to them, they don’t understand it and they don’t understand how the framework allows them to do that.

One of the things we’re doing right now is trying to promote some of the training material that shows developers how to build applications that cover the diversity of the devices. We launched a new developers site just this week with a collection of training classes that will walk you through how to build applications that will cover everything from small screen devices all the way up to TV class devices. It’s also important to take the right approach to testing your apps, to make sure they’re responding the way you want to and your experience is being delivered the way your product team designed it. I think there’s a bit of awareness that is just now starting to take place with developers.

IMA: Some developers like Animoca test with 400 devices to ensure compatibility for their userbase, many of whom are using non-standard Chinese Android devices. What would you say the standard Android developer experience is?

Rutledge: We typically see our big media partners test on around 10 or 15 devices. If you look at some of the material we put out there, one is a class on how to test your app. You can really create a small set of devices that will represent 80 or 90 percent of what’s out there, test on those and have pretty good confidence your app will run well. In addition to that there’s third party services. There’s a company called Bitbar with an application called Testdroid. What they do is broker that app in parallel to hundreds of devices, run your user interaction script and send you back failure reports and screenshots. It lets your team see how your app runs across hundreds of devices, without having to buy and maintain your own inventory of test material.

IMA: An April interview you did with Forbes indicated that Google is leaning towards standardization with all these education materials and resources. Why do you want to move to a more standardized Android environment? Is this to attract more developers? 

Rutledge: It depends what you mean by standardized. In general our underlying goal is to build a cohesive user experience. The best practices and design patterns we’ve put out there are really to let developers understand what users expect to see on a device. It’s really about helping developers build products that consumers want and will use.

IMA: Moving back to Chris for the moment, you shared some stats about Android international performance. 67 percent of all revenue comes from outside the U.S., and the keynote’s activation heatmap did show a lot of international growth. What’s your international strategy for Google Play?

Yerga: It kind of comes down to a couple of different things. First off for Google Play we want to bring as much content to as many different regions as possible. We’re aggressively working on that. We’ve made some very significant strides even in recent months. On the app side, that’s where we need a similar approach — giving developers the tools they need to reach all those different places and make sure we’re enabling developers in various geographies to be successful, like auto translate stuff we showed off.

One of the messages I was trying to get across to people was it’s not just being mindful of the world outside the U.S. if you’re a U.S. developer. Whatever country you’re in, most of the market is outside of your territory. A feature like that is sort a first step to get some early data, so you can say “this thing is really starting to heat up in this area, maybe that’s where I want to make an investment in localization and translation.” I  talked to some developers yesterday after the session who are using the new stats available in the Google Play developers console to get an idea of where their userbase is. Some of them are saying things like “my app was huge in Japan, and I’ve done no promotion.” That early data shows them something is there and is worth investing in translation, promotion and marketing.

IMA: What’s Google’s stance on China right now? You don’t agree with its government policies due to ethical reasons. Google Play is there but limited because you won’t censor apps, and therefore you’ve had an explosion of third party Android app stores. Do you think that’s healthy for the ecosystem?

Rutledge: China’s always an interesting topic.

Yerga: The one comment I make on that is that our principles of openness and giving developers the ability to publish their apps freely as long as they’re respecting our policy and content guidelines is one we’re unlikely to be compromising on.

Rutledge: From a developer’s point of view, if you look at some of the top apps in Google Play, a lot of them are coming from developers in China. The expert market is very strong for them. Distribution of content to consumers in China is not yet decided.

IMA: Moving back to developers, what do you tell them to attract them to the Android platform? What makes an Android app financially successful? 

Rutledge: I think probably now its in-app billing. We’ve seen a lot of success in that camp.

Yerga: You’ve got a wide variety of developers that are building a wide variety of different types of apps. We have a flexible platform, we have a huge, diverse population of users, and in-app billing is flexible in that same way. Developers can use in-app billing to do everything from a try-before you buy thing to virtual currency. There’s so much flexibility that people have there. It gives control to the developers to experiment with different business models. With paid apps you can play with the price-point, but we’ve seen in-app billing really unlock success for a lot of developers. We’ve very excited to see how people use subscriptions going further.

IMA: Speaking of subscriptions, how much of an uptake have you seen for them so far?

Yerga: It’s still pretty early. They’ve only been out for a little bit, but we’ve been very encouraged by the enthusiasm of the people we’ve worked with. Back when we launched in-app billing there was a handful of developers that implemented it initially, and one day, everyone was using it. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a similar sort of uptake. Part of the issue is developers getting their heads around what subscriptions really mean for them and how they can best make use of them.

IMA: What about Android security and malware

Yerga: Bouncer is a great example of how we’re taking a Google style approach to this. Not compromising on openness, still allowing open access to developers to get their applications into the store, and using technology that we have like Bouncer — which is constantly evolving — to catch these things. There’s been a 40 percent reduction in potentially malicious applications that were caught by Bouncer in the first half of 2011 to the second half. These tools that we’re applying are actually making a difference. That’s one part of our approach. In malware it’s a little tricky because we don’t actually talk about all the things we do.

IMA: What about security issues in third party app stores? These problems ultimately reflect back on Android as a platform. How much of a challenge is that?

Yerga: It’s another thing for user education. If you elect to get your software from other app stores, you need to know what the exposure is. Right there in the platform we warn you — if you want to accept APKs from untrusted sources, you’re free to do so, but at your own risk.

IMA: How important is that freedom of choice to the Android philosophy?

Yerga: It’s at our core. Fundamental principle.

Rutledge: For everything. It’s why we release so quickly after the announcements. Developer tools, SDK… as soon as it’s ready for release, it’s out there. We really do believe in the platform.

IMA: Android lead designer Matias Duarte compared Android to an ocean liner — he sees the the changes he makes fan out like ripples. What are your goals for Google Play and Android apps? Where do you see the platform going?

Rutledge: That sounds like Matias. [Laughter]

Yerga: There’s the platform and there’s the content within it. For Google Play we want to keep expanding it and adding new types of content. With this vast amount of content that’s available to you, focusing on discovery and how people find content they’re interested in. With apps and games, it’s a little bit different. There it’s like the entire wealth of the developer community is this system that’s comprised of thousands and thousands of people, all acting somewhat independently but motivated by what they see. One of our goals with the Nexus 7 tablet is having it be a goal-post, having it out there for everyone else building applications and tablets. This is what a device built from the ground up cognizant of Google Play really looks like.

Rutledge: If you look at the range of devices that were talked about at the keynote yesterday, you can see Android is about a lot of things. For us exposing developers to the right tools and APIs to explore their creativity, foster innovation and see what they can do is what we’re really after. Beyond what the platform may do in terms of hardware or hardware capabilities, making sure that developers have the tools to come up with new stuff we haven’t even thought about is part of the driving force behind that, and one of the reasons we support the openness of it all.

IMA: Speaking of the Nexus 7, it’s a really slick device, and it was really positioned as an alternative to the Kindle during the keynote. What’s your strategy there?

Yerga: Our motivation is to build a great device that consumers love. The other thing that is really apparent after a while with Jelly Bean is the zero tolerance for latency — the Project Butter stuff and having that smooth, buttery experience everywhere. All that stuff put together: the platform, the device and all the Google Play content was our motivation.

Rutledge: Developers seem really excited about it too. The seven inch form factor gives you more screen to play with. It gives you choice of building a multi-pane user experience based on how you’re using it or interacting with it. It is all about media consumption.

IMA: Why was it important for Google to move into the tablet business? There were already some well-reviewed Android tablets. 

Yerga: It’s another manifestation of our hero device strategy. We like putting a device out there under the Nexus monitor that says “here’s really what we think the best expression of a seven inch tablet can be.” That’s what the Nexus 7 is.

IMA: When you set it up, we notice you can only get the $25 credit by setting up a Google Wallet account. It’s not a gift card in the box. That’s a very clever strategy to get people used to buying through Google Play. You’ve also done similar things with discounted app sales. How successful has that been for converting consumers?

Yerga: It’s too new to say with the Nexus 7 thing, but intuitively, you know that thing is going to be a success. Sometimes it’s not that consumers don’t want to have a credit card set up with Wallet, but sometimes it’s an inconvenience. By giving people a strong incentive — $25 at that magic moment when you’ve just got your tablet, you’re thinking “this is the book I want on it, this is the game I want on it…” it gets people at that moment and establishes patterns of behavior. You familiarize yourself with the store and all the free content it comes with. You become a Google Play customer literally from the first hour of using the device.

IMA: What about Windows Phone 8 and Surface? Some analysts are predicting it’s going to challenge Android, cut into your market share and become the third smartphone platform. Do you see them as competition?

Rutledge: Most of us on the Android team would say competition is healthy. It only drives us to do bigger and better things. I haven’t taken a close look at it myself — I’ve only seen some of the announcements in the press. I’m excited to check it out.