Google's unhappy Android developers

Controversy around its SDK, rumors of a Symbian tie-up, and the iPhone's star power call the mobile OS into question

For a long time, Google has led a largely blissful existence, fostering a widespread perception -- sometimes in direct contradiction to the facts -- that it can do no wrong. Yet the company's controversial Android mobile platform venture threatens to seriously dent this notion, at least with some of the people it needs most.

As it readies its long-anticipated open mobile OS for public release, Google is behaving in a way that threatens to permanently taint its relationship with many Android developers. The company's actions -- including restricting access to key development tools and allegedly treading on open source principles -- have created, if not a full-fledged revolt, at least a sense of disappointment and disillusionment among many in the tightly knit Android development community, which numbers perhaps 2,000, according to an estimate by AndroidGuys, an independent Android blog site. Some developers have threatened to shift their attention to other mobile platforms.

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Mike Novak, a New York-based independent Android developer, says Google may be guilty of taking its developer base for granted. "Developers are the driving force behind Android applications, so without them it would be very hard for Android to have a stance in the market," he says.

Casey Borders, an independent Android developer in Columbus, Ohio, warns that Google will have to work hard to retain developer loyalty and attract new developers to its platform. "The Android platform has a very strong base and a lot of potential, but it also has a lot of competition," he warns.

The Android SDK controversy
At the heart of the developers' discontent is the status of the Android Software Developers Kit (SDK). In July, Google announced that the latest SDK would be released first to the 50 winners of its Android Developer Challenge (ADC), a $10 million contest that the company is using to find the best and most innovative Android applications -- "cool apps that surprise and delight mobile users," as Google says on its ADC Web page.

While many developers cried foul, Google claims its SDK decision was designed to help the development community. "The ADC finalists are helping us update the latest version of the SDK before we release it to the world in the coming weeks," the company said in an e-mailed statement. "We wanted to limit the challenges developers face with an early release in a particularly critical time during the challenge to not disadvantage them. We've separated the scheduled releases to not disadvantage these winners who are competing for money and the public will receive a release of the SDK soon with more documentation and tools."

But the news that Google was reserving its latest and best development tools for a handpicked group, as well as failing to announce a firm date for the SDK's general release, hasn't gone down well with many developers.

For many in the closely linked "Androidsphere," Google's announcement seemed to come out of nowhere, stinging keenly and contradicting the company's vaunted developer-friendly reputation. Borders believes that Google's decision violated an open source guiding principle. "The idea with open source software is to allow early adopters access to the buggier pieces of code so they can help fix them or let people who want to wait for a solid release the ability to do that," he says. "The key is choice, and Google has taken away that choice and is developing Android like every other piece of closed software."

Jack Gold, an independent technology analyst based in Northborough, Mass., believes that Google's mobile game plan is "strategically flawed." He notes that the company's goals are contradictory: to create an open mobile platform, yet still be able to exercise control over the quality of Android applications. Gold believes that Google's fundamental problem is that it has managed to put the cart before the horse.

"Rather than trying to push yet another platform, Google ought to be bringing the market together and building applications, which is where they're going to make their money," he says. "The developer discontent is just part of what has turned out to be a flawed strategy."

But Rob Enderle, an independent technology analyst, says he understands why Google chose to restrict access to the latest Android SDK. "It's the very same reason why Apple didn't do third-party developers first, and that's to assure the process and the program and the quality that's initially being offered," he says. "They’re pretty sure they can get 50 quality applications."

Independent developer Novak also doesn't view Google's SDK decision as a misstep, given the pressure the company faces. "The community must not forget that Google is dealing with partners in the cell phone industry, and they certainly have a reputation of a closed-source, tight-lipped mentality," he says. "The community can cry foul if Google releases the newest SDK to developers a week before handsets hit the stores, but as far as I have heard that is far from the truth."

Bad timing: iPhone and Symbian steal the show
Whether or not Google made the right decision with its SDK release, the company could have hardly selected a worse time to tick off developers. With Apple's iPhone 3G grabbing sales records and headlines, the recent news that Symbian is going open source, and the fact that Android remains months away from release, Google is facing the possibility that its platform may become nothing more than a follow-up act, lost in a sea of mobile OSes.

Persistent rumors that Google and Nokia may soon merge Android with the now-open source Symbian platform has also done little to warm many developers' hearts. "Within the next six months, Symbian and Android will combine into a single open source OS," predicts Gold. From the viewpoint of many developers, such a move would undercut the basic reason for Android's existence while threatening to trash months' worth of development work.

"Combining code bases isn't exactly a trivial task," Gold says. "On the other hand, it would be much easier to do now than to tackle it in the future when developers are that much farther down the road."

Analyst Enderle doesn't expect a Google-Nokia hookup anytime soon. "To tie Symbian and Android together would require an awful lot of heavy lifting between Google and Nokia, and to do that kind of an agreement would be problematic," he says. "It would have been easier while Symbian was small and independent, but now that Symbian is basically a subsidiary of Nokia, it’s going to be pretty difficult."

Symbian aside, Novak believes that developers who are serious about addressing the largest number of potential customers will ultimately decide to create both Android and iPhone versions of their products. Enderle agrees. "If you develop for Apple, you've got a ready market," he says. "If you develop for Android, it's a crapshoot because there's no assurance that the Android platform is even going to sell."

Limited options may keep enough developers on board
Google may still be able put its Android development house in order, but time is running out. Enderle notes that the company will have to work hard over the next several months to assure developers that there are good, financially rooted justifications for creating Android applications. But he acknowledges that Google faces a tough sales job as it feels its way through its first major mobile software venture. "While Google does simple well, this is Google's first device, as opposed to Apple, which clearly has been doing devices for a while."

Google can take some comfort in the fact that Android developers face a limited set of distribution alternatives, primarily Apple and Nokia. And both companies -- Apple in particular -- have also experienced developer discontent. "Apple is treating developers terribly and really undermining the community," Novak says. "The fact that applications have to go through the iTunes Store in order to be distributed really shows how much control Apple has over the entire OS."

Other marketing options open to developers include Microsoft Windows Mobile and Palm OS. Yet many developers view both of these platforms as unexciting and dated, rooted in a PDA past and increasingly irrelevant in a wireless mobile world.

Enderle believes that developers are ultimately going to embrace whichever platform or platforms promise a good return on their development efforts. "At the end of the day, developers want to make money," he says. "So they're going to develop on a platform and put resources on a platform that will make them money."

Discontented Android developers also need to consider the fact that skipping out on Google at what is still a relatively early stage could turn into a big mistake should the company manage to turn Android into the next big mobile thing -- or even a respectable second-place platform.

Mark Murphy, author of The Busy Coder's Guide to Android Development, says that Google's recent actions have managed to split the development community. "Undoubtedly, some developers have written Android off and will never return," he says. But Murphy also notes that many developers remain unperturbed by the commotion, and some plan to assess the situation over time. "Lots aren't paying a darn bit of attention to the whole mess because there aren't any devices ready yet," he says.

Novak, however, is optimistic that Google's Android strategy will eventually pan out. "Android is going to be something unlike anything currently out there in the cell phone industry," he says. "While it might not be an overnight rock star, it certainly will change the mobile world for the better."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.