Yes, you can create rich Android apps -- but it ain't easy

Roambi found that Android app development is '10 times more complicated' than for iOS, but went beyond skinned Web apps

From its 2009 release to this day, Mellmo's Roambi data-visualization app for marketing-oriented analytics is a poster a child for what an iPhone or iPad could do, helping establish the iOS devices' credentials as a serious, rich business tool.

So the news today that Roambi now has an Android version is a big deal. It's a rare example of Android having a rich, high-quality app that meets business needs. The good news is that Roambi for Android shows that the Android platform can support such apps. The bad news is that the Roambi experience shows achieving that level of quality is not easy.

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The lack of rich, capable apps for the Android platform is one reason why Android tablets are hardly used in businesses and why Android smartphones -- despite their majority share in personal use -- don't even crack the 30 percent mark in business use. (Inferior security and management capabilities combine as the other key reason.) That business use rarely goes beyond email and calendar access, plus Web browsing. iOS, meanwhile has Microsoft Office, iWork, Roambi, iMovie, GoodReader, Archi Touch 3D, Photoshop Touch, AutoCAD 360, OmniFocus, and dozens of other sophisticated applications company employees rely on.

Why Android lags in rich apps
I've long wondered if the Android platform simply couldn't support iOS-level apps, but I've not been able to get a straight answer from analysts and software vendors over the years. What they've all told me is that the severe fragmentation in Android -- of OS versions, processors, memory amounts, screen sizes and quality, and so on -- makes it very hard to develop native applications that work well across the Android world. That's led to an emphasis on skinned Web apps, which are much easier to create.

They've told me that Android users hate paying for things, so the emphasis is on front-end clients to things like social media and banking (often via skinned websites), as well as lightweight tools and games that rely on ads and, increasingly, in-app purchases for incremental functions. But these economic models don't really support apps like presentation creators, data visualization, or video editing.

Still, no one would tell me that Android the platform couldn't support iOS-level apps -- but they also wouldn't tell me that it could. I figured ultimately it didn't matter: Such apps were rare and seemed destined to stay that way.

But in the last few months, Microsoft has been hinting broadly that it would port its decent Microsoft Office for iPad to Android, suggesting Android was in fact capable of rich apps. Then came today's news of Roambi for Android.

Mellmo's journey to Roambi for Android
Two years ago, Mellmo decided to offer an Android version of the Roambi app. Although the vast majority of the company's 800-plus corporate clients use iOS devices, the BYOD phenomenon meant that some customers' employees had Android devices. Also, customers with operations in Asia and Africa tend to be Android-oriented, reflecting Android's dominance in poorer countries due both to the cheaper options available there and the stronger ties many such countries have with Android makers like Samsung rather than Apple, whose market base is in North America, Japan, and Europe.

For these companies, a marketing-oriented visualization app "is like email: It has to work on them all," says Quinton Alsbury, president of product innovation at Mellmo. Although Mellmo's data shows that Android is not growing in business use, it has a presence that the company couldn't ignore. In addition, a customer survey released today that Mellmo did with Box suggests there is pent-up demand for Android in business, if only there were apps: Although 40 percent of the respondents preferred using Android for business to other devices, 62 percent of respondents were not aware of business apps on Android, and another 15 percent said there were not enough apps.

There's some reason to develop rich apps for Android to match what iOS users have had for years. But how to get there?

Mellmo saw the fragmentation issue as a serious obstacle to overcome, though because Roambi is a business, it could assume that the users would have reasonable hardware and recent Android OS version in their devices, which developers for the broad Android market can't assume. "The fragmentation is very difficult, especially for a small developer," Alsbury notes.

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