In 2008, when Google organized its first developers’ conference, it gave attendees the first phones to run Android, its open source mobile operating system.
Now three years later, Android is one of the fastest-growing mobile platforms. Even though Google recently announced plans to close the web store for its Nexus One phone, Android itself is still going strong. In the first quarter of the year, a gaggle of Android-based phones grabbed 28 percent of the smartphone market in the United States, trailing Research In Motion’s BlackBerry devices (36 percent) and ahead of Apple’s iPhone OS (21 percent), according to research firm The NPD Group.
It’s a stunning growth curve for an independent platform that seemed to emerge out of nowhere. And it has turned Google’s developer event into one of the hottest tickets in town with developers begging for passes to it on Craigslist and eBay. An Android developer told Wired.com that his company paid $1,600 for a $100 ticket to the conference — with an agreement that any swag handed out will be given to the ticket seller.
“The biggest difference with this conference compared to earlier ones is the sheer amount of interest in the platform,” says Harry Tormey, software engineer at Snaptic, which makes a note-taking app for both Android phones and the iPhone. “It will be interesting to get a feel for where things are going in the mobile space.”
At the Google I/O event May 18 and 19 in San Francisco, Google will likely focus attention on its Chrome browser and operating system, which will run on everything from netbooks to set-top TV boxes. But Android will be a key part of the picture.
Significantly, Google and Intel are expected to unveil an Android-based “Smart TV” platform.
Android developers say they are looking to hear from Google about how to make Android apps better, make money off the platform and deal with the problem of fragmentation with many versions of the OS available on phones currently.
“Android has been so successful so fast and they are iterating quickly,” says Gregg Fiddes, vice-president of sales and business development for Quickoffice, which makes mobile-productivity software. “When you are dealing with custom SDKs that makes it a big challenge.”
Fiddes says his company will be looking for direction from Google on how to cast a wide net with an Android app so it can support a range of devices.
“It’s a tough balancing act,” he says. “OEMs want to differentiate but Google wants to standardize it, so we are hoping Google will offer some clues on how to strike a balance.”
Developers also say they hope to get a closer look at the latest version of Android 2.2, aka “Froyo,” which is expected to have features such as tethering (so you can use your phone as a wireless modem) and the ability to turn your phone into a Wi-Fi hotspot.
Turning on the cool factor for apps
The growth of the Android platform highlights the gap between Android apps and iPhone apps, say developers. The 38,000 or so apps available in the Android market may seem small compared to the more than 200,000 available in the Apple app store.
The quantity argument aside, Android apps have a problem, say Tormey.
“One of the big weaknesses of the Android platform versus the iPhone is that the apps don’t look as sexy as the iPhone ones,” says Tormey.
That’s because multimedia capabilities on the Android platform are not sophisticated as the iPhone, he says. For instance, support for OpenAL, a 3-D audio API, is available on the iPhone but not on Android. OpenAL is popular among game developers who use it for sound positioning in a program.
It’s also easier to get started as an iPhone developer.
“If you want to make a simple app its much easier to do so on the iPhone than Android,” says Tormey. “The documentation on Android is not as good as with the iPhone, which offers a lot more examples to developers.”
Tormey hopes at its developer conference, Google will offer sessions on the multimedia capabilities of the phone and how Android developers can bring the “wow” factor to their creations.
“The UI interactions can be complex and I hope Google will show clever ways to make the Android interface simple,” agrees Zhao Lu, senior software engineer at Orange Labs, who will be attending the event for the first time. Lu is working on a voice application for the Android platform that lets users add status updates and location to their voice greetings. “On the iPhone, the user interface is really elegant and beautiful. Android is catching up, but, in general, there’s a way to go.”
Developers also say they are looking to hear more about the partnership between Adobe and Google. Adobe is expected to show Flash Player 10.1 running on Android phones. And with the ongoing spat between Adobe and Apple, the presence of Flash might turn out to be the most juicy part of the show.