Inside the mind of a successful Android developer

Android Developer

Every month, we see some new report about how Android users don't buy apps or how there's no money to be made developing for Android. There's a far less frequently told flip-side to that story, though: the numerous developers who do make a living programming for Android, thanks to the droves of users who eagerly pay for their work.

Michael Christoff is one such developer. As the founder of, Christoff created the popular HD Widgets utility for Android, which is currently the 13th most popular paid app on the platform. His two-man startup has grown into a seven-person company now focused solely on Android development.

I had the chance to chat with Christoff about his experiences working with Android, both positive and negative, and the revelation that helped him turn a once-small side project into a booming full-time business.

Here's an edited version of our conversation.

JR: What initially sparked your interest in developing for Android?

Michael Christoff

MC: We started working on Android at the end of 2010. We were working on a media player called Cloudskipper and saw that there were opportunities on Android that weren’t on any other platforms, so we decided to focus our time and attention there.

JR: Android has obviously evolved a lot as a platform over the past few years. From a developer's perspective, how have things changed for you from the time you started to now?

MC: Android has really progressed since the Froyo days, becoming a fast and stable operating system with a modern UI.  Android tablets have finally come of age and the Nexus 7 continues to be a huge device for us.

All of the new device and SDK features are great but challenging to keep up with. We test on over 40 devices. Now we’re seeing Android expand from everything to game consoles and refrigerators.

JR: Your HD Widgets app has proven to be a smash hit, with somewhere around a million installs and a near-permanent place in the Play Store's top paid apps list. What's it been like to experience that kind of success within the Android ecosystem?

MC: Personally, it’s been great. We’re making a living off it, and that’s awesome.

Professionally, if I’ve learned anything, it’s that you have to make an app that appeals to people who actually buy apps on Android. Those people tend to be early adopters, tablet users, and customizers. What sets apart the top apps is [the fact that] they have a very high active-install ratio.

JR: Google announced several new tools for developers at I/O last month, and last week, you launched your own dev-focused creation -- a program called App Stats that monitors all sorts of statistics about applications in the Play Store. How did the idea come about for such a utility?

MC: We're pretty fanatical about user satisfaction. We answer every email and reply to every reviewer that has a problem. The problem was that we can’t realistically monitor reviews 24/7, plus only one in 10 negative reviewers actually leaves a comment. So if an app has a bad release and bombs, we could get a bunch of one-stars that day and not know until it’s too late.

We basically built App Stats to keep an eye out for those bad-ratings days. After that, we found it useful to watch other apps, too. We added notifications so we’d know when a new build went live and later on to know if significant events occurred.

We never planned to release it publicly, but as time went on, it became more and more useful. It got to the point where we were checking App Stats a dozen times a day. It’s usually the first thing I look at in the morning and the last thing I look at before bed. We couldn't be the only ones who could use this insight, so we decided to put it out.

JR: We often see stories about this-developer or that-developer complaining about how Android users don't buy apps, how it's impossible to make a living off of Android development, and so forth. Given your own experiences with Android development, how would you respond to those sorts of sweeping statements?

MC: Despite the challenges, there's never been a better time to be an Android developer and in general an indie software developer, regardless of the platform.

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JR: If you were to give advice to aspiring Android developers, what would you say are the things that have made Android app development work so well for you?

MC: Make something people want -- and listen to your customers.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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