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Opening Wireless Development

Applications are king on the first Android phone

By Margo McCall

If you’re a wireless software developer, you’re used to the headache of designing for different devices and operating systems. And of having to beg carriers to add your application to their decks. But the launch of the first Android mobile phone opens the door to a new and improved, platform-centric world that will potentially make application developers’ lives infinitely sweeter.

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In announcing the T-Mobile G1 at a press-packed ceremony in New York, Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page said one of the best features of the long-awaited Linux device is that it can be tinkered with.“I played with computers in grad school and messed around with Linux. I got the same kind of pleasure playing around with the Android,” said Brin. “It’s just very exciting for me as a computer geek to have a phone I can play with and modify as I have with computers in the past.”

Java apps, Linux kernel

The Android platform includes an operating system, middleware and key applications. Applications are written in Java and run on the custom virtual machine Dalvik on top of a Linux kernel. Android comes with an email client, an SMS program, a calendar, maps, a full-size browser, and contacts. Developers can access the same framework APIs the core applications use, and reusing or replacing components is designed to be simple. Among the tools the system offers are an embeddable Web browser, a set of C/C++ libraries, and resource, notification, and activity managers.

Cole Brodman, T-Mobile’s chief technology and innovation officer, said the G1, manufactured by Taiwan’s HTC, represents “the birth of a new platform, a new device, a new system, and a new set of services that we believe will be game changing."

Brodman said the first Android device will “enable developers to write applications from garages to graduate schools and from small towns to big cities.” For their part, the developers featured in T-Mobile’s promotional video said they liked Android because there were “no forms to fill out,” “no SDK to download,” and “no third party that says you can’t do that.”

 

Google courted developers every step of the way. Besides holding a developers’ challenge, the company hosted and kept the community apprised of Android’s progress through a frequently updated blog. In doing so, Google seemed to understand one important thing: that in order for a platform to be successful, you need developers to create successful applications.

An early wireless ecosystem

Companies have been competing for wireless developers ever since CDMA chipmaker Qualcomm introduced the BREW platform back in 2001. BREW, backed by Verizon Wireless, marked one of the first attempts to create a wireless ecosystem. Under the arrangement, BREW maintained the ecosystem, marketed applications, ensured against piracy, and shared proceeds with developers. As of March 2007, Qualcomm had distributed US $1 billion to developers and publishers. However, in return developers had to submit to stringent registration and development processes.

When BREW was launched, few questioned carriers’ walled-garden approach, which strictly controlled on-deck applications. However, that approach had a serious downside for developers—they could spend months building an application only to have a carrier turn it down. The carriers’ practice of locking devices has also drawn ire over the years. But Google bidding on open-access spectrum in this year’s 700 Mhz auction served as something of a wake-up call.

Whether the first Android device is a boon to developers depends on how many G1s T-Mobile sells. Although built on open source, the G1, like Apple’s iPhone, is still locked to one carrier. And like the iPhone, the G1 features an application store. Initial reviews have focused on the G1’s lack of desktop synch-up, use of only one email address, preference for Google tools, and “design-by-committee” feel.

Which OS will win?

New entrants such as Apple have created even more fragmentation in the mobile operating system space. Symbian, which in 2005 supported 80 percent of the world’s smartphones, saw its market share plummet to 57 percent in the second quarter of this year, according to Gartner.

Meanwhile, BlackBerry producer Research in Motion’s market share nearly doubled to 17 percent in the past year. Microsoft’s Windows Mobile is hovering around 12 percent and Linux has slowly risen to 8 percent. After barely a year, Apple’s Mac OS X, which powers the iPhone, was in nearly 3 percent of the 32 million smartphones sold globally in the second quarter, Gartner estimates.

And numerous other operating systems don’t even appear on Gartner’s radar. ABI research director Kevin Burden said the G1’s introduction represents a big step toward the day when most mobile phones will run one high-level operating system, rather than the variety of systems currently used.

The recent explosion of mobile operating systems has created a confusing landscape, said Lawrence Berkin, vice president of ecosystem and corporate business development at Access, which produces the Garnet operating system. “As an independent developer, it’s pretty daunting to understand this maze.”

Berkin, whose company offers developers free tools and customer connections, declared that the closed era is over. And although Apple has found success with its iPhones, such closed systems stifle innovation. “We as a mobile industry need to make developers successful,” he said. “It’s a different world now.”

Ajax, Flash, and microbrowsers

Shashkirant Chaudury, vice president of mobile for GlobalLogic, believes the industry will move increasingly toward easily deployable vertical platforms without standard interfaces. “Vertical platforms will leverage most of the services available to consumers,” he said. “Developers need to be aware of these new developments in terms of open architecture.”

Furthermore, Chaudury predicted, new microbrowsers will make the “develop-once-and deploy” concept a reality. Ajax, which isn’t dependent on a native language, will greatly ease device management and deployment. “There’s a move away from OS and language-based development to mobile Ajax and Flash-rich applications. That’s where mobile is going to move,” he said.

The push for openness is coming from manufacturers, platform providers, and even carriers. “The openness is coming from everyone,” Chaudury said. “They are really enticing the developer community to work in this space—letting the tiger taste the blood.” CW (September 2008)

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