Viral coefficients + store feature + branding + influencers = cool apps on iOS first

At LeWeb last week former Google CEO, Eric Schmidt was asked by an audience member why the coolest apps come out on iOS first. Apps like Flipboard and Instagram. He answered:

“”So my prediction is that 6 months from now, I think the question
is exactly right right now, and 6 months from now, you’ll say the
opposite. Because ultimately applications vendors are driven by
volume, and the volume is favored by the open approach that Google is
taking. That there are literally so many manufacturers who are working
so hard to distribute Android phones globally, that whether you
like ICS or not, and again I like it a great deal, you will want to
develop for that platform, and perhaps even first. So think of it as a transition over the next 6 months.””

Thing is, that doesn’t measure up with what lots of app developers tell me, and it doesn’t measure up with what you can see in the street.

Right after that an entrepreneur walked up to me with his app, which looked like Instagram. He wondered why the press doesn’t cover apps not designed on iOS. I said “come with me.”

We walked around the street at LeWeb. First person I ran into was Ayelet Noff. She is one of Israel’s top community connector types. Runs a blog called “Blonde 2.0.” But that doesn’t really explain her role in the tech scene.

“What kind of phone do you use?” “iPhone.”
Next up? Cathy Brooks, who does the same thing in SF? “iPhone.”

This continued with person after person until we got about 10 people. I think we saw one Android phone, nine iPhones, and no WP7’s. This was a crowd of European entrepreneurs and tech passionates.

“Had enough yet?” I asked the entrepreneur.

This matches what I have seen at conference after conference. Last year I spoke at the Where 2.0 conference. This is a conference with tons of hackers and mobile passionate developers and leaders. 80% of the audience used an iPhone.

Last week I had dinner with Loic LeMeur, who runs LeWeb. I watched him closely at dinner. He only used his iPhone. But when I started talking to him about mobile he quickly pulled out an Android and a Windows Phone 7 device. But it was obvious to me that his favorite device was iPhone. Do you think we talked about apps that only existed on WP7 or on Android? No way.

Other things I’ve noticed. Folks who study the app market, like Distimo, say that Android users won’t buy apps.

That gets discussed behind closed doors in Silicon Valley VC funds. Note that famous VC Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers has an iFund (they fund lots of famous iOS apps, including Flipboard, etc). When I asked Matt Murphy whether he was going to have an aFund or a WP7Fund he quickly answered “no.”

When I talked with Path CEO Dave Morin a week ago:

He told me how hard it is to build beautiful apps on Android. Tonight I asked him what the numbers were like?

“80% iOS, 20% Android,” he texted me.

Now, to be fair, not every developer sees these kinds of results. Bobby Ghoshal, CEO of Flud, says he saw more Android users than iOS users. The problem with his results is that he had a very strong competitor on iOS (App of the Year in 2010 on iPad, Flipboard) while his app had nearly no competiton on Android. Let’s see what happens to Flud when Flipboard moves over.

One major reason, by the way, that Flipboard continues to be Apple’s darling is that it hasn’t yet done an app for another platform. Developers tell me that Apple is much more likely to reward you with a “featured” spot if you stay iOS only. Path is one of the most public examples of a company breaking Apple’s unspoken rules and getting away with it (so far).

When I recently interviewed Mike McCue, CEO of Flipboard, where he showed me his new iPhone app, I tried to nail him down about Android. He deftly didn’t answer the question:

What does that mean? Well, last week I was in the car with 955 Dreams CEO Kiran Bellubbi shortly after he learned that Apple had named his app, Band of the Day, as runner up for iPhone app of the year. He told me his servers were near melting down with thousands of downloads per hour.

Which gets me to the final point. Here’s why Eric Schmidt is wrong and will continue to be wrong: virality coefficient.

What is that? Well, it’s the ability to tap into an early user base and get that user base to tell other people about it.

Paul Davison, left, shows off a stealth app at a SF geek party

Meet Paul Davison. That’s him on the left. He has an app that’s still in stealth. I accidentally learned about it at a geek party today in San Francisco. I watched him work the room and get everyone in the room on his app. Nearly every person in that room was an iPhone user.

He has not yet gotten funding. His app will be the hottest thing at SXSW next year. I can’t wait to tell you about it. I took a picture so I could remember the moment I first got on this app but I was also watching how the San Francisco network works.

I wasn’t the only one watching the reactions and laughs that Paul was getting. Users, even though they were asked to keep it quiet, kept heading over to other parts of the party to tell their friends that they had to see Paul’s app. All had iPhones. I think I saw only two Android phones at that party and no Windows Phone 7 devices.

Watching this was me and a group of VCs. They asked for the app and business cards.

See, what do VCs look for? Virality coefficients. This is why they poured so much money into Facebook so early. The virality coefficient for that was about what Paul was getting today. In other words, one user is likely to tell four other users about this app. That’s extraordinary. Just listen to Eric Ries, author of the Lean Startup, tell me about why getting a high viral coefficient is so important to businesses.

But it’s worse than that. Because investors want to see sizable adoption before they will fund any app, you gotta do the hard work that Paul was doing today: showing your app around and hoping that someone picks it up and starts spreading it around.

Will that happen with Android? It can. There are more handsets out there than on iOS. But, in my experience, it’s very hard to get the kinds of virality that you need to get funded on non-iOS platforms.

It’s also much harder to get the press, the folks who run the Apple store (they watch the press too and use it as a guide for what they should pick), and the VCs to take you seriously if you aren’t on iOS.

I don’t see this mix changing much. In fact, as Loic told me, he has moved back to iOS because of this and other reasons. That means that Google has its work cut out for it if it wants the sexy cool apps written for it first.

Now, when I talk with experts who help launch companies, like Mike Schroeder, who works at LaunchSquad, he says that Android is coming on strong. His clients, like Thuuz, a sports enthusiast app, are seeing about 65% Android/35% iOS and he’s pushing his clients to do Android and iOS together.

That’s good advice.

Now, who really is hurt by all this? Well, RIM is completely out of the game. No developers I know are building RIM apps on go-to-market entries.

Microsoft continues to struggle. It’s very rare to see a WP7 app demoed anywhere (LeWeb shows why, the only WP7 devices I saw there were owned by Microsoft execs/employees, or by app developers who were paid for their development).

Consumers who haven’t bought iOS devices will feel hurt, but generally only the better apps will get pulled over from iOS anyway, so are they really hurt? Well, only if they care about being on the bleeding edge. Most users don’t care so much, if they did, Android wouldn’t have the marketshare it now has.

So, all this really means is if you are struggling to get adoption, you have to care and if you like arguing OS’s out, like I do, then you’ll care. The rest of it will come out in the wash.

That said, Eric Schmidt will have to face more of these questions because Android isn’t changing the game that I can see. iOS is still king for early adopters.

UPDATE: Brian Hall asks “Are Android users simply cheap?”