U.S. App Makers: Seize Global Opportunity While You Still Can—Like Quip Just Did

App stores from Google and Apple offer developers instant, international reach. But a new study from Flurry suggests most American app makers aren't really taking advantage of that, to their peril.

But one startup, Quip, is seizing that opportunity by offering its word-processing app for tablets and smartphones in five new languagesless than a month after it launched.

Few enough English speakers have even heard of Quip, a competitor to Microsoft's Office 365 and Google Apps. Why reach out to German, French, Spanish, Italian, and Chinese speakers?

Watching Your Languages

Flurry, a maker of mobile-app analytics tools, reports that the United States is rapidly losing its edge in software as it goes mobile. In 2008, American companies held 65% of the worldwide software market. Now, 64% of apps are made outside the U.S. Chinese users, in particular, spend most of their time using apps made in China.

 

That's why app makers should go international early. If not, they may lose their best shot at gaining users abroad.

For Quip, though, the answer was also that it could. CEO Bret Taylor tells me his team was able to internationalize the app far faster and less expensively than previous generations of apps, thanks to good planning early on and the distribution that Apple and Google offer mobile developers.

Typically, internationalization is an afterthought, something to do after a developer conquers a home market. And it often requires rebuilding the app's underpinnings. That's what slows development down and adds cost, Taylor says.

Taylor previously worked at Facebook, and before that, he and his cofounder, Kevin Gibbs, both worked at Google. Those experiences helped Quip's team think about how to build in internationalization and localization "hooks"—bits of software meant to enable translation to multiple languages with ease—from the very start.

Google, in particular, has added many tools to its Android software-development kits that enable internationalization. But Taylor said those weren't particularly useful, because Quip was aiming to internationalize for three platforms at once—Apple's iOS, Android, and the mobile Web.

The big challenge in internationalization is handling strings, or blocks of text characters.

"A lot of the native platforms have their own ways of doing strings, so we built an internal tool that let us share the same translation framework between Android and iOS," says Taylor. "That was an interesting thing we wish there were better tools for." He says he might consider releasing it as open-source software when Quip's small team has more time.

Smart handling of strings was smart business. On each platform, an app might have a different way to represent an interface element, like a notification that another user has opened a document.

"If you do [translation] naively, you'll pay a translator three times to translate the same phrase," Taylor explained.

Heading Abroad

The payoff Taylor hopes for: a foothold in the office-productivity app market around the world. "So many developers are U.S.-first," says Taylor. "If you go into the productivity category in the App Store in Spain," there's less competition. But as Flurry's analysis shows, that may not remain the case for long.

For Quip's product, targeting markets where users are adopting smartphones and tablets before they ever get to PCs is particularly apt, since it's betting on mobile adoption. At Facebook, he said, many international users only ever experienced Facebook on their mobile phones. Quip, with its mobile-focused approach to document creation, could have an analogous experience, Taylor suggests.

"It's a low-cost thing to do, and it represents who we are as a company," says Taylor. "We can look at usage, one country is using it more than others, we can put more effort there."

Quip is already working on Korean and Japanese next, Taylor said.

Going international isn't a sure thing for Quip, or any other mobile-app developer. But it's clear that not supporting multiple languages will hold your app back in other markets—and it may be too late before too long The lesson from Quip's announcement and Flurry's analysis: Translate early, translate often.

Photo of Bret Taylor by Jolie O'Dell