Where Android beats the iPhone

Android's openness, flexibility, and Java foundation make it the best choice for many developers and the businesses that depend on them

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The open source foundation also makes adopting the platform that much easier for Java programmers. I was about to install a library to suck down a distant Web page when I realized that Eclipse was signaling that the library was already installed. Many classic frameworks like Apache's HttpClient are bundled right into the mix. So many parts of building an Android app will be very comfortable to an old Java hand.

Still it's important to be slightly skeptical about this openness. The code to interface with Google's excellent Map project is in the package com.google.android.maps, a clue that the interface is not open and that you're not welcome to use and distribute them any way you like. Also, many users who take root-level control of their phone are finding that it can be a real hassle to keep up with bug fixes and other changes.

These limits will affect the most capable and most extreme developers, those out to remake the phone from bottom to top. A far greater number of developers and their employers will be happy with the basic freedom to distribute software. While the Android does require the developer to add a digital signature to the JAR file holding an application, the developer can use a self-signed certificate, an option that allows some control without putting Google at the center of all distribution. Keep hold of the key for this self-signed certificate because the phone will only accept upgrades to packages signed with the same key.

After the code is signed, any path between developer and phone is acceptable. A number of third-party programs will grab the APK from the file system and install it. The very fact that I can write "file system" without using felonious words like "jailbreak" is a welcome treat. There's one app, SwiFTP, that lets you upload and download files from your phone over the Internet using a proxy Website. It's quite a nice trick, and not something you'll find in Apple's App Store. When a friend tapped around the demo phone, he thought I'd done something bad, but it was just another app downloaded from the official Android Market.

Hello Android
For the programmer, the advantages of the open ecosystem were apparent from the beginning. While it took me several days to get the keys sorted out when I first hooked up an iPod Touch to the Apple Xcode IDE, I actually got the "Hello World" test working on the Nexus One before I fired up the simulator. Eclipse just noticed the Nexus One was hooked up to my PC, then started up the code. I glanced over and my new app was just running.

The pure Java foundation of Android will be one of the biggest attractions for many businesses with Java programmers on the staff. Any Java developer familiar with Eclipse should be able to use Google's Android documentation to turn out a very basic application in just a few hours. Not only that, but all of the code from other Java programs will run on your Android phone -- although it won't look pretty or run as fast as it does on multicore servers.

The biggest challenge for the Java programmer is working through the seemingly endless layers of indirection coded in XML and properties files, all intended to make it easier to create applications for different screen sizes and languages. Apple is just beginning to add these features to support the iPad, but Google anticipated all of this from the beginning. You can set up the simulator to handle different screen sizes. So when is the Google Pad coming? HP and others are already hard at work.

Here is another place where Google's approach is so much saner than Apple's decision to wrap a nasty nondisclosure agreement around its SDK. As Apple would have it, programmers can't talk to other people, such as bosses and investors, about the iPhone and iPad capabilities unless those folks pay the cash and join the developer program. And is it really possible to call something nonpublic if anyone with $99 can get a copy of the SDK? Is this really what the law means by taking reasonable precautions to protect the so-called trade secrets? Go ask Apple's lawyers.

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