In the mobile software world, developers are considered vital to the health of platforms and they have several choices. Platform owners have to work very hard to make sure their systems are easy to develop for. Too much friction, too little documentation or too steep a learning curve can drive developers away. Which platforms are the easiest to develop for? Does ease of development translate into popularity? Or is it just a hygiene factor?
A lesson from history
Mobile platforms have not always tried to make things easier for developers. Before the iPhone, Symbian dominated the smartphone market and had a policy of making developers jump through hoops to ensure both the resource efficiency of apps and the security of the platform. Nokia tried to add a developer friendly layer on top of the OS with Qt but it was too little too late to capture developer attention, even with an existing large installed base. So, a terrible developer experience can ruin a platform’s chances but does greater ease of development lead to success?
Interpret with caution
In our last developer economics survey we asked developers how easy it was to use a common set of APIs on their primary platform. Before diving into the data, there are some caveats:
Comparison between platforms is slightly unfair because the API categories are broad and not all platforms will enable access to the same level of functionality
Not all developers target multiple platforms, so some do not have a good basis for determining ease of use (although purely subjective ratings are still valid for comparison)
The APIs that were included in the survey are biased towards native functionality, so this comparison in somewhat unfair on HTML5
The APIs do not include UI functionality and building the UI is a significant part of the work in most mobile apps.
Bearing those points in mind, below is what developers think of their platforms.
Easy != Popular
Overall we can see that the challenger platforms, BlackBerry 10 and Windows Phone are the easiest to develop for, with BlackBerry 10 having a slight lead. In the middle are the leading platforms, iOS and Android, with iOS fractionally easier to develop for overall but with Android having several APIs where it leads. In a distant last place we have HTML5, suggesting that it’s still very difficult to build apps that take advantage of uniquely mobile features with web technologies. In this regard it’s interesting that the recently appointed CTO of Mozilla, Andreas Gal has this to say:
“For Mozilla, anything that the Web can’t do, or anything that the Web is not faster and better at than native technologies, is a bug. We should file it in our Bugzilla system, so we can start writing a patch to fix it.”
It looks like they still have a lot of work to do! Web technology has matured a long way and makes it very easy to develop web sites across a wide range of screens – mobile apps are not the same thing and pose a different set of challenges.
To answer the question we posed at the beginning, it seems that ease of development is mostly a hygiene factor. The top platforms are not the easiest to develop for. BlackBerry 10 seems to have surprisingly high levels of continuing loyalty amongst developers despite the very poor sales for the platform to date, so perhaps there is some value in creating an environment developers really love to work with rather than one that is simply not painfully difficult.
The next frontier?
As we move towards a world of connected sensors everywhere and wearable devices are being hyped as the next big thing, an interesting sidenote is that Bluetooth was rated as the hardest API to use by developers across all platforms. After years of failing to reach its potential, Bluetooth is emerging as one of the key technologies enabling smartphones to talk to wearables and other external devices without sufficient power to maintain their own permanent internet connection. Perhaps this is an area for all platforms to consider revisiting, or an opportunity for an Internet of Things platform provider to abstract away the details.