If you’ve got a smartphone, chances are you’re either running iOS or Android, though a year ago you’d be forgiven for not even knowing what Android was, let alone the fact that it’s rapidly catching up with Apple’s iPhone and iPad operating system. Open source, easily adaptable and with a community of coders and designers forming around it as quickly as Linux but with the mass-market appeal of the ever-popular touch-screen smartphone, Android’s where it’s at, technologically speaking.
However, if you’re a business that deals in software development, or you’re a small business seeking to reach a wider audience, Android may appear to be a bit of a blessing. Its open source format and the lack of Apple’s stringent App release guidelines means that applications can be road-tested by the public a lot faster. Apple’s App Store is a competitive market – only alive a few years and already accelerating towards half a million Apps, releasing sub-standard code for even a few pence can spell disaster for an App’s long-term appeal.
But why would you even want to make a successful App? Well, for the simple reason that more and more people are using their smartphones for tasks that the laptop is no longer needed for. Even the netbook now sits second in the portable-but-capable stakes, especially if your phone can order you a DVD, book you a cab home, and sort the take-away on a Friday night, all on the way into work. Oh, and that train? It’s delayed, but don’t worry, your App’s told you the alternatives anyway.
The reason I mention the sheer variety of Apps is because it’s an open market, and with Android, the market widens to include those who many not be able to afford Apple’s start-up costs. They’re not bank-breaking, but even the odd fifty quid here and there is going to make a difference to a business with three employees and an office that’s smaller than the building’s lift shaft. Android’s software development kit (SDK) is advanced, malleable, and most importantly – free.
Entire companies have formed around submissions to the App Store and Android Marketplace, sometimes focusing on one platform, more often attempting to focus on both. Major companies will drop in with versions of their popular software – Adobe sell a Reader app for less than a fiver that will grant you access to PDFs, and it’s up to you if you’d prefer theirs or the multitude of cheaper and even free alternatives. But fear not, the market isn’t dominated by major names.
Small, niche technological wizardry is also available, and small businesses who offer this sort of thing – Shazam (the “what song is this? Aha!” people), Dropbox (cloud file storage) and other small applications that can help you network between different versions of a service you’re already using for a specific purpose, are benefiting in a big way. If you can cover a spot in the market in this day and age, you might find that going open-source will lead to success. You can field-test the app on almost any Android phone, people don’t need a £400 handset to try it, nor will the Apple store have the privilege of rejecting it for the myriad reasons they tend to throw at small developers.
My personal favourite paid Android application? Inventory Droid. Scan barcodes, take photos, and essentially create an entire inventory for a small shop. Now, combine that with, say, the Motorola Flipout, a cheap Android handset, a free Google SDK and some spare time, and not only do you have your own app for use with your own business, but you can sell ten thousand copies and pay your entire year’s salary. Not a bad deal for a quick download. Can’t code? Hire someone – if your idea’s good enough, it’ll pay for itself, but remember that Android is constantly evolving, and you’ll never need to pay another penny to keep up with the SDK.
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