After four years of intense competition, the quality and availability of leading third-party iPhone apps still beats Android, even though Android phones have a much greater market share. We've seen it in study after study: More people own Android phones, but developers prefer iOS. Apple's phones are easier to develop for, with less fragmentation, less piracy, and a higher rate of developers getting paid for their efforts.
Apple's curated approach to the App Store may be annoying for many, but it makes browsing and searching a lot easier than Google's perpetually under-monitored Play store. And there's just more there when it comes to Apple’s virtual shelves.
Recently I've been looking for games: Disney Fairies Fly (for my daughter) and SpellTower (for myself), for instance. Nope, not on Android. Gameloft has 111 iPhone apps versus 48 Android apps. EA publishes 51 iPhone apps and 13 Android apps. Glu has 70 iPhone apps and 40 Android apps.You get the idea…
Even when apps come to Android, it's often months or more like a year after they debut on the iPhone. Temple Run and Instagram are two big-name examples of that phenomenon. Nvidia has done marvellous work nurturing game developers for Tegra devices, but it's a relative drop in the bucket compared to the tide of iPhone app supremacy.
iPhone apps tend to look better, too. Take CNN's app as an example. On Android, it's perfectly functional. But the iPhone app has slightly larger images, a prettier background, and time stamps on the stories. Looking at something like the Facebook app, which has the same functionality on both platforms, explains a bit of the difference.
The fonts on the iPhone app (see the image above) are tighter, more precise and better kerned. The white-on-grey number badges are a little bolder, and there's a better balance between icon and text size compared to the Android app (pictured below).
This, to my mind, is Apple's greatest achievement. Not anything about the iPhone's hardware; right now, it's basically just keeping up with the Joneses. Apple's killer app, so to speak, is its delightful, unmatched SDK. Apple gives developers the tools to make beautiful apps easily, and then to make money from them.
A lot of Apple's advantage has to do with Android's proliferation of devices, screen sizes, and versions. iPhone developers just have fewer targets to write for, so they can focus on fit and finish rather than on generating and testing 50 different versions of code and images for different screens and processors. I'm not sure how Android can pull ahead given that handicap.
Earlier this year, I was busy voicing my opinion on how the iPad is the superior tablet because Android tablet apps, frankly, suck. That isn't true about Android phone apps. Android phone apps are fine. They're perfectly adequate. There are plenty of good ones. I couldn't live without Plume, NewsRob, or Pulse, and I love my Kemco RPGs. If Android was the only platform, people would feel satisfied. But iPhone apps just tend to be better.
Could Windows Phone stand out?
Microsoft's Windows Phone 8 has a relatively unified hardware platform, a strong design language, and a curated app store. It's trying to strike a balance between the Apple and Android approaches: Less control than Apple (with phones of different shapes and sizes made by different companies) but more than Android (with a limited set of hardware platforms and strong opinions on design.)
Microsoft's platform is trapped in a chicken-and-egg conundrum for developers, though. With so few Windows Phones sold, many devs don't want to jump on the bandwagon. (Yes, it has 100,000 apps, but it's far behind the other two major platforms; Google Play hit 675,000 this week). Users won't necessarily buy the phones until their favourite apps are available, though.
This is yet another reason why I'm intensely interested in trying Windows Phone 8. Will WP8 apps have an elegant, unified look? Will the SDK make it easy for developers to create beautiful apps, and to make money from them? And will Microsoft and carriers manage to get enough phones into consumers' hands to create a virtuous cycle?
I certainly hope so. Until then, I'll play with my iPhone review handset, take my Android phone home, and live in envy.