When To Tablet-ify Your App

A question came up on the android-discuss list yesterday, inquiring about why somebody would invest time to create a richer version of their app for tablets, given competition from notebooks. Since my reply then got caught up in a bunch of irrelevant bashing of Android’s audio capabilities, I figured the topic is worth exploring a bit more.

In this post, I am making two key assumptions:

  1. You have a clear business model for writing Android apps. If you don’t, start there before worrying much about tablets. If you are doing this as a hobby, some of what I write here may be relevant, and some won’t be.

  2. I am focusing on creating a rich tablet-focused UX and feature set for your app. All developers should make sure that their apps on the Android Market pass the “silly” test — the app should not look silly when viewed on a 10” tablet screen. That may require some tweaking of your layouts, artwork, etc. Since your phone app will get installed on some tablets, you need to make sure your app can be reasonably used on tablets, even if you go no farther.

But if you are thinking of going farther, here are some reasons why you might want to do it:

  • Maybe you believe that you will have the potential for new publicity with a rich tablet-specific version of your app. After all, only so many apps will have a tablet-centric option, particularly in the near term. There will likely be some blogs and other sites that focus on, or at least heavily promote, tablets and their apps. Not only might this gain exposure for the tablet audience, but the additional publicity may also cause people to try your apps on phones as well, as they simply did not know about you otherwise.

  • Maybe you can make a separate tablet version of your app that is an “up-sell”. Perhaps your current strategy is a free, ad-sponsored app for phones. That app will need to look acceptable on tablets as well, since tablet users can install phone apps. However, given a savvy use of <supports-screens>, a tablet version of your app will not be available for phones — Android will automatically scale your layouts and images up, but not down. So, you might add a bunch of features to the tablet app and make it a paid app. If you detect that your free app is being used on a tablet, you can promote the paid one, and thereby open up another revenue stream.

  • If I were Google, I would seriously consider having app rankings in the Android Market be tied to form factor. While the rankings for tablets would be seeded from the phone rankings, over time the rankings for tablets would be influenced more strongly by feedback from tablet users, rather than all users. This would allow apps that are strong for tablets, yet caught in the morass of substitutes for phonees, rise to the top for tablet users. If this turns out to be the case — and please understand I have no idea if it is or not — this means that adding stronger tablet support to your app might earn you a high ranking for tablet users, regardless of your phone ranking.

  • Perhaps a stronger tablet experience will give you access to new business models. Maybe you failed to get an OEM deal with phone manufacturers, but you think you have a shot with tablet manufacturers. Maybe you haven’t had luck with your enterprise deals for phones, but you might with tablets. And so on.

  • Perhaps a stronger tablet experience merely accentuates an already-successful business model. If you are distributing your apps for free as proof-positive of your Android consulting skills, you will want one strong tablet app to demonstrate that your skills extend to that form factor.

  • Perhaps the scariest one, though, is user expectation. As Reto Meier put it:

“When I put my credentials into a shiny new tablet, I expect it to install all the apps I use on my phone — and I expect all of them to be optimized for the tablet form factor.”

Frankly, “expect” is a stronger term than I would use, but I would not be surprised if there are a fair number of people with Mr. Meier’s attitude. If your app works on tablets, but does not really take advantage of them, how much will this be seen as a negative and therefore harm your app and brand? I doubt that all apps on iPads are optimized for iPad — many are probably still just running in double-size mode from the iPhone UI. I have not done the research to see if that has materially harmed those iOS apps’ ratings and sales. But, it is something to keep in mind.

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