Developers praise Android at Google I/O

Mobile platform's flexibility and potential, especially in comparison to the Apple iPhone's, touted by developers at Google conference

Developers praised the programming experience and the potential of Google's Android mobile platform at the Google I/O conference as the company emphasized its flexibility and showed cool new features.

There was a lot of buzz around Android at the conference, which covers all areas of Google development, and an "Introduction to Android" session was full. Google wants the technology to open up the mobile industry, where developers have faced hurdles getting applications ported to many different operating systems and approved by carriers. But Android will enter the fray as just one mobile platform among many, including the Apple iPhone SDK.

[ Related: Read all about Google Android in InfoWorld's special report ]

The latest prototype version of Android drew comparisons to the iPhone after it was demonstrated during a keynote session Wednesday morning. Google showed a home screen with colorful widgets similar to the Apple iPhone's, plus a compass and a status bar that can be pulled down in any application to view messages. The compass, which could be built into a handset along with an accelerometer, would be able to orient maps according to which way the user was facing. As demonstrated with Google Maps Street View, it could show the exact view that a user was looking at, with street-name and address information built in to the map. Videos of the demonstrations were posted by the Android Community blog.

Aside from features on high-end phones, Android will reach far more people than the iPhone platform, if it meets its potential, said Atif Iqbal Chaudhry, a graduate student at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., who attended the conference. The platform could be extended to inexpensive phones with a smaller set of capabilities for average consumers, he said.

Android is an easy way to begin developing a mobile application, because Google provides all the pieces required, unlike some other platforms, such as PalmOS, Chaudhry said. He has been developing location-based applications through the PC-based emulator software for Android and said he is looking forward to trying out the software in the field on a real handset.

Google and its partners in the Open Handset Alliance are pushing Android as more open than other mobile platforms, including the iPhone. Developers won't need to get Android applications certified by anyone, Google Developer Advocate Jason Chen told the Android breakout session. In addition, there won't be any hidden APIs accessible only to handset makers or mobile operators, he said.

Developers will also be able to modify core elements of the interface and come out with replacements for the basic building blocks that come with Android, such as the address book, Chen said. Even the look of the home-screen widgets will be customizable. For users, that will mean being able to control their own experience by downloading their favorite third-party versions, Chen said.

Google expects the first Android-based devices to hit the market in the second half of this year and will make the finished software platform available to developers after that, so anyone can create their own phone platform, Chen said. The core elements of it will be released under the Apache open source license.

Until all parts of Android are complete, Google won't start translating the platform and documentation into languages other than English, Chen said in response to a question. The team doesn't want translations to lag behind the current information, he said. But he welcomed an attendee to help Spanish-speaking developers by translating materials or participating in message boards.

Developers praised the platform, in which applications are written in the Java programming language and then compiled for the Dalvik virtual machine.

"It's sweet," said Free Beachler, owner of Longevity Software, in Boulder, Colo. Beachler wrote an entry for the Android Developer Challenge, a competition to find the 50 best Android applications. His software, designed to store itineraries, contacts, destinations, and other travel information for users on their phones, didn't make the top 50. But he's working on two projects for Android Developer Challenge 2, which will take place after handsets are out and the platform are complete.

Beachler, a Web developer, said it took time to learn to use Android, but once he did, it was logically organized and easy to use. He compared it to languages such as PHP for Web development.

Rob Mickle, a computer science major at the University of Colorado, also said he liked working with Android. Mickle developed Fingerprint, a collaborative drawing application, in about five months. It was selected for the top 50 in the Android Developer Challenge.

Enterprises are asking R Systems International, a software services company in El Dorado, Calif., to write applications that work on any mobile platform, said Harsh Verma, vice president for global innovative research at R Systems. One way to do this is on browsers, but there are problems with that, including differences among mobile browsers and the need for a network connection, he said. Verma hasn't yet started working with Android but believes it could reach a broad range of devices.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.