A majority of mobile application developers see Google's Android as the smart bet over the long run even as they vote for Apple's iOS in the short term, according to a survey published Monday.
Of those developers, 59% said that Android had the "best long-term outlook," compared to just 35% who pegged Apple's iOS with that label.
But developers' take on Android's long-range outlook was at odds with their opinions on current opportunities with iOS, which powers the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch devices. Three out of every four developers said that iOS offers the best "near-term" outlook, with 76% tagging Apple's operating system as the best revenue opportunity.
"This is an 'ah-ha' moment for developers," said Scott Schwarzhoff, vice president of marketing at Mountain View, Calif.-based Appcelerator. "iOS gets the high marks today, but Google's Android gets the high marks for long-term."
To make things even tougher for Apple down the road, the bulk of developers viewed Android as the best operating system to use in other hardware, including the anticipated Google TV and other home appliances. Seventy-two percent answered "Android," just 25% "iOS" when asked to name the "best positioned to power a large number of connected devices in the future."
Schwarthoff credited developers' eagerness to create programs on Android-based tablets for the growing momentum of Google's operating system. Sixty-two percent of those polled said they were "very interested" in working up software for Android tablets, a number slightly higher than pre-launch enthusiasm for Apple's iPad.
Interest in Android tablets still lags behind that of the iPad, however. The Appcelerator/IDC survey had the "very interested" in developing for Apple's tablet at 84%.
"This is all about platform bets by developers," Schwarzhoff noted. "They're saying 'I need to place a bet, I need to read the tea leaves.'"
Those bets can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, Schwarzhoff acknowledged. When more developers believe there are opportunities in a given platform, they craft more applications, which in turn boosts the options for consumers, who view a healthy app store as a major indicator of a mobile operating system's success.
The survey also showed that Google and Apple will likely duke it out between themselves for the title of tablet master, said Schwarzhoff, who pointed out the traction that Android and iOS have on smartphones means tablets powered by those OSes will be the likely winners.
"When you're successful as a developer on an OS on a smartphone, a lot of the known quantities are known to you" when you move to tablets, he argued.
That puts other platforms hoping to grab tablet share at a major disadvantage. "If you're second-tier on the smartphone, you face headwinds on the tablet," Schwarzhoff said.
The survey said as much: Only 15% of the polled developers said they're "very interested" in Palm's WebOS, while 14% answered the same for Research in Motion's BlackBerry operating system.
"Tablets are the launch pad for developing beyond the smartphone," said Schwarzhoff. The fact that developers view Android-based tablets so favorably -- even before any are actually in consumers' hands -- means that the category will be "another device show-down" between Apple and Google.
"Tablets are the tipping point" toward Google's Android, Schwarzhoff said. "The race between Apple and Google has tightened, and the tablet is the linchpin."
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.