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Why Apple should develop Android apps

Apple's app ecosystem remains a closed-loop, Apple-only affair. But it's in the company's interest to change that.

A lot of users have soured on iTunes, but some people -- including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak -- think it would benefit Apple to bring it to Android.

Back in March, I read a story by The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg titled "How Apple gets all the good apps." It was mostly about why Apple's rivals -- Google, Microsoft, and others -- have brought their apps to the iOS platform while Apple didn't reciprocate the gesture.

Mossberg described the situation as obviously lopsided in Apple's favor and that it "stemmed from the different business models of the big rivals." Apple, after all, makes the "vast majority" of its money through hardware sales while Google, Microsoft, and Amazon, he said, are primarily software and services companies, even if those companies also make some hardware products. Apple, with more than 500 million iOS devices sold, was too big for rivals to ignore.

All that's very true. However, nothing was mentioned about whether, in the long run, it might be a bad idea for Apple to keep some of its key apps isolated on its own platform as Android devices continue to grow in popularity.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Shrinking competitive advantage
I don't how many iOS devices Mossberg owns, but I've acquired a lot of them over the years. At the same time, I have my share of Android-based devices, and I know plenty of people who live in a mixed-device household, especially with all the cheap Kindle, Nexus, and Nook tablets to choose from.

The conventional wisdom is that Apple has the best selection of apps and the majority of exclusive apps. But that list of iOS-only killer apps has shrunk in recent years and months. Consider Instagram's eventual transition to Android, which was so wildly popular that it was a factor in Facebook's billion-dollar acquisition of the photo-centric social network just a few days later.

Indeed, as Time's Harry McCracken reported recently, Android and iOS are very evenly matched across the board: each platform boasts around 800,000 apps. And the Android world still remains comparatively fragmented -- device compatibility isn't a given. Of course, the iOS world isn't as monolithic as it once was -- certain new apps won't run on older devices.

But while Android may have a larger overall population of users, iOS users are the ones who tend to pay for their apps. That's why app developers still to prioritize iPhone and iPad first: it's where the money is.

The bottom line is that many consumers are sitting on iOS app collections worth hundreds -- and in some cases, thousands -- of dollars, creates an incentive for folks to stick with Apple devices. It's a competitive advantage -- a fairly lopsided one, according to Mossberg, so why should Apple bother changing things? If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Well, for starters, I'd argue that it's not as big a competitive advantage as it once was. It hasn't stopped millions of people from buying cheaper Android smartphones. Apparently, the Google Play store is good enough. Google has its own exclusives, or at least it has some apps that offer more features on Android than on iOS (Google Maps, Google Now, Google Voice).

Apple-only becoming less appealing
On a personal level, while my day-to-day smartphone remains an iPhone (the 4S), I'm finding myself using Apple's apps less and less (by that I mean the ones Apple makes, not third-party developers' apps). I've almost completely stopped using iTunes, having shifted over to music subscription services (Spotify, Rdio). I don't buy books from iBooks because I know I won't be able to view them on any other devices. And I stopped using iCloud because I kept exceeding my storage limit and Apple kept asking me for more money (I've gone back to manually backing up my iDevices).

Setting aside a discussion of the deficiencies of iTunes and iCloud, my larger point is that I'm being drawn away from Apple apps because I don't want to feel cornered by them. There's a bit of complicated psychology at work here, but sometimes offering up a little freedom can create a tighter bond.

I'm not alone. I think that in future, as we live in more mixed-device households, consumers are going to demand more freedom to move easily from one platform to another. And I'm not just talking about portable devices. There are game consoles, as well as "smart" TVs and set-top boxes like Roku. Hardware may be where Apple makes the bulk of its profit, but in the long run it behooves the company to have people use its software (and shop in its e-stores), no matter what device they're on.

Google develops apps on iOS, controlled by its archrival, Apple. Sarah Tew/CNET

The irony is that Apple's biggest competitors have already done this: Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Samsung all make apps for iOS. True, Microsoft's crown jewel, Office, remains a no-show, despite persistent rumors. But Google has embraced iOS -- the apps for Maps, search, and Gmail keep getting better and better. The company understands that even if it loses the battle -- because the user bought a non-Android product -- it's winning the war if that same consumer ends up using that Apple hardware to access Google's wide range of cloud-based services. They're still a Google user, seeing ads from Google clients.

The same goes for Amazon. That company's books, music, and video apps are on iPad and iPhone, making it all too easy to bypass iBooks and iTunes. Indeed, if Apple's not careful, more folks will move to Amazon's or Google's platform-agnostic suite of apps as their "hub" and feel less tied to Apple's -- and Apple in general.

Apple's killer apps...for Android
With that in mind, here are the apps I think Apple should bring over to Android devices.

  • iBooks: The iBookstore has progressively improved, but it just seems silly to restrict yourself to reading your e-books on Apple devices when you don't have to. The Kindle, Nook, Google Books, and Kobo apps are available on multiple platforms, including iOS. Maybe Apple doesn't care that much about the e-book business, but I think it would help bring more users into the fold if it were platform agnostic -- or as Amazon likes to say, "Buy once, enjoy everywhere."
  • iTunes: To expand its audience for iPhones and iPods, Apple was willing to bring iTunes to Windows machines. So why not Android devices, particularly as Amazon continues to make its aggressive push into both music and movie downloads as well as streaming video? Heck, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is for it, saying in an interview last year on Slashdot that, "I love Apple products and iTunes and wish it were on my Android products, too." (Note: With a third-party app, you can already sync your iTunes library with an Android device).
  • iCloud: In theory, iCloud is a great concept. But because of its limitations, users are still gravitating to the Dropboxes of the world -- which allow for cloud access for photos, documents, and contacts -- from many devices. Hopefully, we'll see a new, improved iCloud as part of iOS 7 later this year. But in the long run, if Apple expects people to pay what it's asking them to pay for iCloud, it should be a much more flexible service that includes support for other platforms.

Yeah, I know the odds of Apple ending its app isolation are a long shot. And yeah, I know Apple has a lot of disdain for the inelegant, fragmented world of Android.

But remember: the iPod didn't really take off until Apple created iTunes on Windows. Yes, that was a different era -- Apple the underdog, Microsoft at the height of its powers. But it worked out brilliantly for Apple.

This time, Apple would be working from a position of strength. Why not roll the dice on Android?