Developers give Google mixed reviews

Google I/O attendees laud development technologies but question the company's directions and intentions

If the buzz among attendees of last week's Google I/O conference in San Francisco revealed a common thread, it was that the search giant's ongoing push for developer mindshare remains intriguing, though rife with questions and concerns.

And though growing pains are to be expected, the tenor of the talk on the conference floor highlighted notable misgivings about the direction Google is outlining for developers as it pushes deeper into the enterprise development realm.

Roger Simmons, a Java EE architect at consulting firm Purpleshift and one of the 3,000 attendees on hand, sees the Google App Engine application hosting service, the company's Gears technology for mixing Web and desktop capabilities, and its data APIs as the locus of Google's enterprise development play.

[ For an in-depth look at Google App Engine, see "First look: Google's high-flying cloud for Python code" ]

"They're becoming a platform for enterprise software development," Simmons noted, before expressing disappointment with the current limitations of technologies, especially App Engine's Python-only support.

According to Simmons, before App Engine can be taken seriously, it will have to add support for Java and Groovy as well. Google has expressed intentions to expand the base of languages supported on App Engine but has not yet revealed a time line. And therein lies Google's enterprise development promise in a nutshell: early efforts with significant upside and buzz awaiting full-blown execution of intentions.

Concerns about the core
Of course, getting a bead on Google's intentions is not always easy. Perhaps because of this, attendees levied criticisms against the lack of development hooks Google has provided into its core AdWords advertising technology -- likely one of the chief means for developers to monetize any Google-based offerings.

"Google is an ad company. They make 95 percent of their money off of ads," said Scott West, who is affiliated with In.Genu, an online seller of therapeutic products and Google AdWords customer. "Most of the stuff they're offering here [doesn't] give them the hooks to serve up that advertising."

West, who also owns engineering design company Descartes Technology, added that a Google representative in attendance went so far as to de-emphasize AdWords as a Google priority.

The conference, to an extent, "has forsaken me, the advertiser," West said.

Although he concedes Google does offer effective tools for serving ads, West said he would like see a more powerful ad engine from Google "that really reduces my maintenance time."

A Google representative, contacted after the conference, shrugged off the insinuation that advertising is no longer top of mind.

"I assure you that optimizing and innovating and improving our AdWords program is always a priority," she said. "The conference was really a developer conference, kind of geared toward talking about some of our other programs. It wasn't AdWords-focused, but we definitely have whole teams that are very dedicated to the constant [innovation] and improvement of our AdWords program."

Questions of intention
Mixed messages from a company growing in nearly every direction at once are one thing; the increasing perception that Google's growth itself presents a threat to developers and users is another.

"Google has a lot of information, and they have a lot of power, and I hope that the use of that power continues to be at least benevolent. If not benevolent, then at least neutral," said David Brenneman, a technology consultant and student at San Francisco State University.

Brenneman said he would not like to see Google partnering with the government, accessing people's e-mail, or studying people's search habits. "Things like that would be particularly frightening to me," he said.

Descartes' West also questioned the search giant's intentions -- in particular, the potential impact App Engine could have on ISPs.

"One of the most fundamental shockers to me was Google offering their cloud-based solutions. To me, I'm saying, 'Does this spell the end of the ISPs?'" West said.

Despite such misgivings, from a development perspective, both Brenneman and West were positive on App Engine.

"One of the main things I like about it is that you can program for it in Python and also that it's freely available to try out," Brenneman said.

West, left in the cold at the conference as an advertiser, was warmed by the prospects App Engine held for Descartes, his engineering design firm.

App Engine revs to mixed reviews
App Engine -- Google's fledging cloud-computing play -- was both embraced and criticized by many in attendance.

[ For a breakdown of cloud computing, see "What cloud computing really means" ]

Rod Boothby, vice president of platform evangelism at cloud platform Joyent, was one such attendee who depicted App Engine in a mixed light.

"It's helping to get people to start moving onto the cloud, and I think that there are going to inevitably be a series of different cloud computing solutions, some [that] are more geared toward industrial-strength enterprise solutions [and] others that are proprietary like Google's," Boothby said.

Yet, Boothby added, App Engine offers its own way of storing data and files, which he believes will call for considerable re-architecting work for those looking to use the platform.

"It's tough to migrate some applications onto App Engine because you need to redo the way that those applications think about databases," Boothby said.

Attendee Tino Breddin, an intern at SAP Research and student at Dresden University of Technology in Germany, left with some questions about App Engine.

"I want to see what is the difference between App Engine and Amazon EC2 [Elastic Compute Cloud], for instance," Breddin said.

Android: The apple of developers' eye
Of all the development technologies on display at the conference, Android -- the mobile application project led by Google -- received the most consistent positive response.

"Android looks well done and very well put together," said attendee Margaret Olson, CTO and co-founder of Plum, a Web site for collecting and sharing digital content. "It does stand out as considerably better thought out than some of the other things they're presenting here," such as the OpenSocial API for social applications, she said.

And it wasn't just the development potential that brought favor to Android.

"Android is interesting more from a personal-use [perspective]," said Vernon Huber, application development manager at ADM. "I can't wait to get my hands on it."

Android could offer a better alternative to offerings from companies such as Verizon, Huber said.

Joyent's Boothby, an iPhone user, was glad to see the Android alternative.

"I have an iPhone, and I'm delighted with it. But I think more competition in the space is great," Boothby said.

Brenneman saw the Android alternative more in terms of its similarities to the iPhone. "In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if people get it running on the iPhone," Brenneman said.

Gearing up for Web development
Among the other development offerings showcased at Google I/O, GWT (Google Web Toolkit), which enables developers to leverage Java skills to build JavaScript applications, drew praise.

"The Google Web Toolkit is very interesting. It seems like a neat development environment to try to build applications," said ADM's Huber, who also saw potential in Google Gadgets, which enables objects to be placed on a Web page.

"It would be neat to be able to write some notification types of gadgets that up until now would have forced users to go to a browser," Huber said. The customization potential Gadgets presents for those notification events is a real draw, he added.

Gears -- Google's technology for bringing Web apps to the desktop -- was viewed less favorably by attendees.

Sean O'Steen, a developer at Tech Monkey Design, who is tapping Gears to build an alerts module, found the learning curve steep.

Purpleshift's Simmons levied harsher criticism of Google's focus on the HTML 5 specification, which is leveraged in Gears. The specification, he noted, supports using database code in HTML.

"We moved away from that a long time ago because it doesn't make sense to put a lot of your application logic in your HTML. It just seems a step backward to me," Simmons said.

For the most part, Google has proved a knack for aligning marketplaces to its advantage. Given the early stages of efforts such as Gears, App Engine, and Android, however, it remains to be seen just how much of a Midas touch Google will have with these latest endeavors.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.