Five years ago, it was an idea. Two years ago, it became a reality. Since then, Google’s Android operating system has become one of the world’s top mobile platforms.
An open-source alternative to the iOS platform used by the iPhone, Android hasn’t necessarily played catch-up with Apple. One local Android developer says Google seems content to let application makers build upon its platform at their own speed, and that’s something he admires.
“I’ve seen the frustrations of the mobile industry for a long time, with so many closed platforms with the companies always being in control,” Joseph Luk, cofounder of Ikamobile—a mobile-development company based in downtown Vancouver—told the Georgia Straight by phone. “And when Android came out, it looked like a real open and viable alternative place to be for a developer.”
Luk was one of the first local developers to take on Android, entering Google’s Android Developer Challenge in 2008 when the OS made its debut. While he didn’t win the contest, he’s focused on Android development ever since, among other things producing the popular app Movie Finder.
Using a device’s GPS capabilities, Movie Finder lets users search for theatres in 15 countries and see what films they’re playing.
But while Luk has found success with Android, it’s not something developers should take for granted.
“If you look at all of the apps on the Android Market [Google’s app store], it’s not matured yet,” Luk explained. “It’s kind of like the Wild West out there, where everybody thinks they can create an app, and there’s a lot of ways to interpret a user interface.”
In fact, it’s the user interface that Luk sees as the key to developing a successful app.
“If you look at iPhone versus Android, what do you suppose the main reason is that people choose iPhone over Android? User interface,” Luk said. “And the big, glaring problem on Android is that the interface isn’t as polished as the iPhone, and that works for us as an opportunity here because we’ve [Vancouver developers] got a lot of experience working with user interface.”
But while some see the interface as lacking, that’s not the only significant challenge when it comes to developing for Android.
Jerome Pimmel is the organizer of Vancouver Android Developers, a meet-up group where successful and aspiring developers get together and discuss all things Android.
At these meetings, Pimmel has heard concerns about the variety of devices, monetizing apps, and Google’s return policy.
“Only until recently you couldn’t buy and sell Android apps in places like Canada. The range of the countries was very limited,” Pimmel said by phone from his home. “The fragmentation is a big problem for developers, and the return policy as well.”
Patty Lee, marketing manager for Wavefront, a nonprofit commercialization centre in Vancouver dedicated to supporting wireless growth and development, agrees with Pimmel, having seen these frustrations firsthand.
“A big issue is the return policy for developers,” Lee said by phone.
Until recently, Google had a 24-hour return policy on all apps in the Android Market. According to Lee, many apps were downloaded and used for less than a day, then returned, leaving developers with no revenue. But, on December 10, Google changed this policy, shrinking the return window to 15 minutes.
Lee also plays a role in the Vancouver Android Developers group, hosting meetings at Wavefront’s downtown location. The centre has a large and varied library of rentable handsets for developers to test their apps on, something that Pimmel pointed out is crucial when it comes to working with Android.
“The fragmentation is talked about as a really big problem amongst developers, especially game developers,” Pimmel said, adding that diverse hardware like full keyboards, different-sized screens, and the presence or absence of a touchscreen restricts how far-reaching an app can be in the Android Market.
But despite the challenges, developing for Android has some advantages. For example, while Apple’s App Store is stuffed with over 300,000 apps—which means it’s harder for newcomers to make their mark—the Android Market features more than 100,000 apps, offering a greater chance that an app will be discovered by users.
Also working in favour of Android developers is the ease with which apps can be submitted and accepted into the Android Market. By contrast, iOS developers must contend with unknown wait times and may find their app rejected, sometimes seemingly arbitrarily.
So while the road to app-development glory may appear to be more treacherous when working with Android, developers shouldn’t shy away, according to those in the know. This year, Android will power a variety of new tablets and perhaps a few netbooks, opening the door to an entirely new wave of apps.
“These devices are increasingly growing ever more powerful,” Pimmel said. “And I think the potential is there for apps and software for use in the scientific fields, business worlds, and uses that aren’t yet realized.”