Later this year, Apple Inc. will put augmented reality software in as many as a billion mobile devices.

Alphabet Inc.’s Google beat Apple by three years in releasing AR tools, but its features are on very few phones and haven’t gained wide acceptance. By contrast, Apple can easily pair its software and devices, an advantage that will help it quickly make up lost ground, developers say.

“When they make it available, my apps will be in millions of phones,” said Alper Guler, who makes AR programs. “It’s a major update which enables us to push forward far further.”

AR superimposes digital information -- for example, video game characters or product prices -- onto a person’s view of the real world. Virtual reality, on the other hand, immerses users in a completely digital experience. The market for both technologies could be worth as much as $182 billion by 2025, according to Goldman Sachs Group Inc.

Apple last month lifted the lid on ARKit, the Cupertino, Calif.-based company’s first foray into this field. The tool lets developers build AR applications for iPhones and iPads.

Google revealed Tango, its AR software system, back in 2014, with the latest iteration showed off this January. Unlike ARKit, it requires infrared depth perception sensors, and there are currently only two mobile phones available with the technology: Lenovo Group Ltd.’s Phab 2 Pro and Asustek Computer Inc.’s ZenFone AR. Apple’s ARKit uses the iPhone’s existing hardware, such as the camera and gyroscope, to achieve similar ends.

Google's Fragmentation Issue

The crux of the problem for Google is what’s known as fragmentation. When it updates its Android mobile operating system, hardware makers and cellular network operators are often slow to send the new software to phones. That means the latest features, like Tango, only reach a fraction of Android’s more than 2 billion monthly active devices. Apple designs both software and hardware, giving it more control over when and how its operating system is loaded onto iPhones. The result: 86% of Apple’s mobile devices run the latest iOS software, compared with 11.5% of Android devices that run the newest Android OS.

This is a major drawback when you’re in the business of building a new AR ecosystem that weds apps made by third-party developers to millions of smartphone-wielding consumers. Tango is on so few Android devices that developers won’t risk making apps for the system because they worry no one will use them.

It’s the opposite with Apple: If only half of all its active devices download the new iOS 11 operating system this fall, that will be 500 million iPhones and iPads with ARKit. (More than 1 billion Apple devices run iOS, but some earlier models will be incompatible with the new OS). Still, that’s a huge, almost-instant market for AR developers to target.

Take the designers at Buenos Aires-based digital studio Dift Collective, who considered Tango but still haven’t been tempted to use it. Yet since Apple Inc. released ARKit to developers in June, the team has made AR experiences including a computer-generated rocket landing in a swimming pool and a 3-D moon that floats in the middle of a living room.

“For us the main step forward is the distribution,” said Charly De Venezia, Dift’s head of operations.

Even if Google came up with AR software that didn’t require a 3-D sensor, the multiple versions of Android running on hundreds of different phones would create a lot of extra work for developers, he explained. As of early July, there were seven different versions of Android running on mobile devices, according to Google.

Since developers would have to test and optimize AR apps for so many different devices with varying display resolutions and performance capabilities, “it would require a huge effort to take this to Android and make it market-ready," De Venezia said.