November 8, 2007 4:00 AM PST
Google must woo mobile app developers
Android, unveiled earlier this week, is touted as the answer to a major problem facing mobile-application developers: how to make developing applications for mobile devices as open and easy as developing applications for the Web.
Most experts and consumers agree that accessing the Internet on a mobile handset is very different from accessing it on a PC. Often, users get stripped-down versions of Web sites, with far fewer applications available. The shortcomings have been blamed on whoever controls the network, the device itself, and the underlying technology. Also, the mobile market is incredibly fragmented, and software developers are forced to support various systems.
Google believes it can change all of this with its Android software platform and its Open Handset Alliance, a collection of 34 companies working together to embed this technology into chipsets, handsets, and services.
But mobile-application developers interviewed by CNET News.com say they've heard these promises before. While they're not saying "no" to Android, they're wary. They worry the new effort will do little more than fragment the market further by making them develop yet another iteration of their applications. And they're keen to see what Google produces when it unveils an Android software developer's kit on November 12.
"Right now, Android just adds to the headache of developing different versions of our applications for different operating systems," said Kay Johansson, CTO of MobiTV. "It will be just another platform we have to support. I think for the Google platform to really be a game-changer it's going to have to offer more than just an open-source operating system for a mobile phone. It will have to create mobile Internet devices that happen to make phone calls."
Google did not return calls for comment.
Developing applications for the traditional Internet is simple compared to developing them for the mobile Web, because there are common operating systems, browsers, and standardized programming languages. What's more, the underlying services delivering applications on the Internet are agnostic, meaning that regardless of whether someone is using a Comcast cable modem service or a Verizon DSL service, the application looks exactly the same.
Struggling with the variables
The situation on a mobile device is quite different. Developers must contend with several different factors when programming for a mobile device. Not only must they take into account the different shapes and sizes of the screens, they also have to adjust applications based on the particular differences among various operating systems and carrier networks.
In the end, an application developer must often write dozens of versions of one application to port onto hundreds of handsets. While this is not an impossible task, it's time-consuming and expensive, and many experts say it stifles innovation.
"The big difference between the mobile Web and the traditional Internet is that on the traditional Internet I can connect from any broadband provider and get the same experience," said Iain Gillott, founder of iGillott Research. "That's just not the case on the mobile Web, and it probably never will be."
Google is not the first company to promise the mobile phone community an easier and more streamlined way to develop new applications. Sun Microsystems has tried to do this with its mobile Java programming language. Qualcomm developed BREW, a standardized environment for developing applications. There's also the Symbian operating system, developed by a consortium of handset makers including Nokia and Sony Ericsson. The software is licensed to a number of handset manufacturers and is the No. 1 smartphone operating system for handsets in the world. Microsoft also offers its Windows Mobile platform on a number of different devices and has gained significant traction in the last few years.
So far these companies haven't truly created the same kind of open environment that spawned the development of successful Web applications such as Google's YouTube, Yahoo's Flickr, or Facebook.
"Java promised to allow a 'write it once, publish many' model," said Mauro Lollo, CEO of Movidity, a company that has created a new way to stream video on cell phones. "But the reality has been much different. There is still a lot of customization that needs to be done depending on the device and the carrier."
Phones come in all different shapes and sizes. They have different graphics and processing capabilities, causing a problem that's acute for the less sophisticated "feature phones," which make up the vast majority of the market.
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