Mobile developers are betting that a wave of Android tablets this year floats their application boats, according to a survey published today.
The rush to cash in on an expected Android bonanza will also solidify the mobile race into a two-horse contest between Google and Apple, and put other operating systems into a hole that may be tough to climb out from, the survey said.
"The question from most developers is 'After iPhone, where do I go? Android or iPad?'" said Scott Schwarzhoff, vice president of marketing at Mountain View, Calif.-based Appcelerator. "If you're interested in growing market share, then it's Android. Developers believe [Android tablets] will have a massive impact on consumer computing."
Of the developers surveyed, 92% said that they were "very interested" in creating apps for the iPhone, while 87% answered the same for Android-based smartphones, a five point jump since the last poll three months ago.
But it was the response to tablet app development that caught Schwarzhoff's eye.
"Android tablets picked up 12 points," said Schwarzhoff, "with 74% saying they were very interested." Apple's iPad, meanwhile, gained just three percentage points to 87% of the developers.
The quick climb by Android tablets in the survey, largely based on the scores of companies saying at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that they would launch such devices this year, makes Google's OS the one to watch in the tablet space during 2011, Schwarzhoff argued.
"This will be the theme to watch all year long," said Schwarzhoff. "The iPad will just roll along, no matter what's in the iPad 2. But Android will be the major wild card."
These days, developers have to wager on a platform long before it's popular, or risk being left in the dust by competitors, said Schwarzhoff. And that means Appcelerator's survey is just the current opinion by programmers of Android tablets' potential.
Nothing said that better than the number one factor that developers identified as crucial to the success of Android tablets: The price of the hardware.
"Our assumption was that Honeycomb would be the driving factor," said Schwarzhoff, referring to the upcoming version of Android designed for tablets. "But not only was it not first, it was fourth. The really surprising finding was that price was number one."
With so many Android tablets slated to ship this year -- by Schwarzhoff's count, 85 were announced at CES earlier this month -- price will be a competitive lever some will use to gain an edge, developers believe. And that, they're convinced, will mean market share.
"Price becomes a huge factor with so many new devices," said Schwarzhoff. "Developers see the possibility of a sub-$200 tablet, even a sub-$100 tablet, and think there's a major opportunity because volume numbers [of the hardware] are the number one thing any developer looks at."
But Android tablet prices -- which Apple chief operating officer included in his list of "vapor" elements of iPad rivals -- have yet to be revealed, putting developers in the guessing game.
Schwarzhoff acknowledged that the situation was fluid. "By this holiday season, we may see a new dynamic [on tablet pricing] that we don't fully understand yet."
Developers are also eyeing Android tablets because of the success of Android smartphones, figuring that they can use what they've learned creating phone apps to build tablet programs. "If you're successful in phones, whether Android or iPhone, you have the wind at your back when it comes to tablets," Schwarzhoff noted.
Another factor in developers' minds that justifies the investment in Android tablets is the success of the Android Market, and the recent announcement of Amazon's upcoming Android app store. More than 8-in-10 said they were very interested in distributing apps in Google's own e-market, while 37% said they were just as eager to try out Amazon's when it launches later this year.
"Marketplaces are a huge driving factor in developers' decisions," said Schwarzhoff, who argued that Amazon's entry is actually a benefit, not a threat, to Google. "When you bring in another marketplace, it's another competitor to Apple's," he said.
The attention paid to Android, and the continued interest in developing for iOS on the iPhone and iPad, means that other operating systems could easily be left out in the cold, the poll revealed.
While Schwarzhoff said that Windows Phone 7 was in a "reasonably good position, relative to expectations," with 36% of the developers surveyed saying they were very interested in creating apps for the platform, he warned that Windows and Research in Motion's BlackBerry risked sliding into irrelevance.
"You get to a point, and very quickly, where Microsoft or BlackBerry have to get the major marketplace play going that can vault them up the ranks," Schwarzhoff said. "Unless you can catch up to Android and Apple, you fall further and further behind. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, that seems to be the dynamic."
The Appcelerator/IDC survey results can be viewed on the former's Web site.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is email@example.com.