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Can 3rd-party Android apps survive competition from an official app?

October 27, 2009 | by Andrew Kameka

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Can 3rd-party Android apps survive competition from an official app?

When the T-Mobile G1 debuted in October 2008, there were a number of features and services that were missing from the Android experience. People wanted to sync with their Exchange server, so Touchdown managed to fill a gap. Others wanted to sync their to-do lists, so Astrid added sync support for Remember the Milk. In the absence of official support, talented developers emerged to meet consumer needs.

However, many of the great apps that everyone loved have been challenged by official releases from HTC, Google, Remember the Milk, and others. How appealing can these apps be when the allure of an official release from the source is available? Will people pay $10 to use Touchdown if they can get native Exchange support built-in by device makers for free?

Here’s a look at some apps facing competition from the big boys.

Microsoft Exchange Support

Third-party app (3PA): Touchdown, RoadSync, ContactsCalendarSync

Outcome: Hanging on…for now. RoadSync recently went from a free app to a paid version, but it and similar apps may be on borrowed time. These were great, must have solutions for G1/Dream and Magic phones that lacked native Exchange support. However, more Android phones are beginning to include built-in Exchange support and Android 2.0 (Éclair) makes this a standard feature. It will take something exclusive and top-notch to warrant spending money on something that users can get for free.

Google Places (and Business/Location services in general)

3PA: Where, Better POI, Layar, Sherpa, etc.

Outcome: Mostly unaffected. This is the one instance I think “official” support means absolutely nothing. Of course, an app from Google is going to be more noticeable and popular than third-party apps, but people seem to embrace all of the GPS-based business/location apps. Where was one of the most downloaded apps in the Android Market before Google Places came along and it remains popular. Meanwhile, Sherpa, Layar, and several other location apps prosper because they offer something different that appeals to users. Plenty of people will say these apps are better than Places and vice versa.

Facebook

3PA: Babbler, Bloo, Facebook Chat, etc.

Outcome: Hanging on. After fBook disappeared, Bloo and Babbler came out to meet the needs of Facebook junkies using Android. Then Facebook released its official app, which ironically had less features than the third-party apps. Facebook’s saving grace was being faster than the unofficial applications, which has led to more than 250,000 downloads. Babbler and Bloo still have some loyal users thanks to its features, but the numbers are relatively smaller and obviously affected by the official app.

Google Voice

3PA: GV

Outcome: Dead and gone. GV was a widely-used (10k-50k downloads) and well-respected (4.5 stars) listing in the Android Market. But after Google released an official client for Google Voice, the incentive to keep developing the app slowly disintegrated. Developer Evan Charlton has since abandoned GV with this statement:

This application is no longer supported. I highly recommend switching to the official Google Voice application. Patches are welcome, but I will no longer be devoting time to bug fixes. Thank you for all your support!

Remember the Milk

Third-party apps: Astrid, RTM ToDo Viewer, RTM Tasks, Milchkaffee

Outcome: Still going strong. Astrid is one of the most popular apps on Android and the other apps seem to be unaffected as well. While the official Remember the Milk is free, it requires an RTM Pro subscription that prevents many users from making the switch. This is one instance where you probably won’t see people abandon the third-party app.