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Google wants to prove its app business is just as good as Apple's

To compete, Android needs happy developers.

Google Hosts Its Annual I/O Developers Conference
Google CEO Sundar Pichai
Justin Sullivan / Getty

Google’s mobile world has long been seen as a less lucrative place than Apple's for app developers. Joel McDonald disagrees.

Over two years ago, McDonald quit his job to make digital trees. They are stunning trees — elegant images, inspired by Japanese ink wash paintings, that a surprising number of people have paid money to manipulate inside Prune, McDonald's app.

Prune was dubbed the "hottest new iPhone game." Three months after releasing the iOS version, McDonald put out one for Android.

"Even on Android alone, it would have been sustainable," he told Recode.

That’s music to the ears of executives running the Google Play app store, for several reasons.

Most developers continue to see more financial gain from Apple, one reason they build apps for iOS first. Google needs to convince them that Play is a place where they can reach not just large audiences — something Android has — but worthwhile ones, lest they build primarily for Apple. And getting profitable apps businesses on Android is central to the renewed push from Play, which includes digital music, movies and books, to build a viable, billion-dollar-plus business that doesn’t come from ads.

Google shared some figures behind that push at its I/O developer conference this week. Sixty-five billion Android apps were installed in the past year (up from 50 billion a year before). In 2015, spending on Play apps globally grew 30 percent — although Google has not updated the sum it doles out to developers, $7 billion, in over a year.

"More people in more places are engaging actively with the content. Consuming a ton of it. And people are spending more every day," said Purnima Kochikar, director of Google Play, told Recode. "That’s the kind of vibrancy we need."

Kochikar runs the business side of the app store within Play, which has recruited Sameer Samat, a respected departed Googler, to return as product chief. Before Google, Kochikar helmed developer relations for Nokia. And she used the company, once a massive employer in its native Finland, to illustrate Android’s economic benefits in spreading wealth widely.

"You know what happened to Nokia," she said. "That is the amazing part of Android and Play. It has bolstered companies that have come out of nowhere."

This week Play also introduced a series of developer tools designed to foster more of these app companies, like McDonald’s. They include upgrades for measuring app performance from Google’s Firebase product, a developer favorite at I/O. Play also rolled out a beta-testing feature that lets developers try out their apps with users earlier.

According to McDonald, these new features cut down on the time it takes to push updates of his app to Android users. "I was used to jumping three more hoops," he said. "It was a nice surprise that it was more straightforward."

McDonald wouldn’t share the user or sales numbers for his app, which goes for $3.99 a pop. But he did say it has "done well" on both iOS and Android.

Beyond flaunting the growth of Play, Google has another motive in highlighting the success of apps like Prune. It needs to convince regulators in Europe, who have opened an antitrust case against Android, that the operating system boosts other companies instead of thwarting them.

In its argument to regulators, Google is likely to point here, to a recent report from the Progressive Policy Institute. It claims that some 1.66 million app jobs emerged in the U.S. from the "app economy," more than double the number from three years ago.

As an engine for job creation, however, Play is still in second place. Some 70 percent of those jobs were held by people building for Android, according to the report, with 87 percent building for Apple (the percentages reflect the fact that many developers work in both ecosystems).

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