Google's announcement last week of its new open-source mobile platform – dubbed 'Android' – generated a lot of hype last week, but developers had to wait until this week to see what the fuss is all about.
After downloading and examining Google's Android software development on Monday, some software developers gave the platform favourable reviews and praised it as a breath of fresh air for an industry that has long been characterised by closed devices and software.
"What you see with platforms like Windows Mobile is that there's more of a concentration on bringing Windows applications to mobile platforms," says Evan Prodromou, a writer and programmer who lives in Montreal. "But it seems that what we're seeing with Android is a ground-up approach to application development... It's a pretty decent first effort. I'm going to guess that we'll see a lot more refinement, but it's a good start."
Mobile application designer Sean Moshir also gives Google high marks for enabling peer-to-peer communication, allowing phone handsets to send and receive data with other handsets.
"Those services they're including are crucial to developers to get state of the art applications out," says Moshir, founder and CEO of CellTrust in Arizona.
Fabrizio Capobianco, the CEO of the open-source mobile application server Funanbol, says that Google's decision to make an open-source mobile platform is a pleasant surprise, and that he expects the company to be successful in getting third-party developers to write innovative applications for it.
"I've been pushing for an open-source mobile platform since the beginning of time," he says. "To have someone as big as Google push for open-source systems is a great thing for us."
A "DIY" mobile platform
It is striking how barebones Andoid SDK is, developers say. Other than adding a few demo applications, Google has mostly left it up to third-party developers to create new applications for the platform. In an online demo of Android, Google showed how the platform can be used to support text messaging, internet browsing, Google mapping software and an OpenGL 3-D graphics interface.
Google is hoping that third parties will use the platform to develop applications that will be far more innovative and useful than what they've concocted so far, and is offering a total of $10m in prizes to developers that create the best applications.
"The best applications [for the Android platform] are not here yet," said Sergey Brin, Google's president of technology, during the demo. "That's because they're going to be written by you and by many other developers."
Capobianco says that offering a financial reward to open source developers is a shrewd move, since it will draw more developers in to create the kinds of applications that will help the Android platform thrive.
"It has always been somewhat taboo to offer money to open source developers," he says. "But it's a smart way for Google to get developers to make applications for devices before they're even launched."
Prodromou says that Google's quest to reel in third-party developers will be further helped by the fact that it uses Linux as a base operating system, with a Java programming layer on top.
"There's such a great pool of Java developers out there, so it really shouldn't be too much of challenge to find people to work on it," he says.
Paranoid about Android?
But despite their positive reviews of the Android platform, the developers identified some potential roadblocks that could hurt its prospects of becoming widely adopted across the mobile industry. Moshir, for instance, worries that carriers might lock down the operating system, preventing applications from accessing phone hardware. This has been a problem with previous toolkits such as Java ME, he says. Carriers often limit the number of applications that can run on a handset because they don't want to have to provide support when something goes wrong, he says.
"They lock it down to the point that an application cannot access the hardware," Moshir says. "The question is whether Google is going to be able to convince carriers to use its operating system but at the same time convince them not to lock it down."
Capobianco thinks that one of Google's challenges will be figuring out how to monetise the platform through advertising. Because mobile phones aren't ideal for web browsing, he notes, the company isn't likely to make much revenue from users who connect to its search engine through their phones. Rather, he says, Google might consider getting companies to use the platform's location-aware capabilities for local promotions.
"They'll have to develop something that allows you to read advertising messages, but still not feel intrusive," he says. "Imagine if you were in looking at a map in a certain neighbourhood, and a nearby pizza shop put a message on the map letting you know that they have a special two-for-one deal on pizzas that day."
Another potential problem is that many enterprises might see Android-powered mobile devices as security nightmares that could leave their companies' sensitive information vulnerable to hackers. Similar issues have been raised in the past about using Apple's iPhone in the workplace, and Google's open-source platform could further stoke fears among CIOs that Android-powered devices aren't work-safe.
Carsten Brinkschulte, the CEO of mobile device management company Synchronica, says that while there are some legitimate security concerns for Android-powered devices, enterprise users should take a measured approach to dealing with them and shouldn't outright block them from corporate networks.
"I think in general this is not an additional security threat to enterprises," he says. "Many enterprises already have people running around with laptops where some are Windows-based and some are Linux-based. Those are probably a bigger security concern than the Android platform."
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