Google Android: The party is over

Google's smartphone OS is open source, hardware-agnostic, and developer-friendly. So how come its developers seem so unhappy?

Judging by buzz alone, the Palm Pre seems to be current the hot smartphone among developers. It's no surprise, considering how much effort went into its developer platform. Palm is banking that a strong developer community will build a grassroots movement behind the Pre that can drag the company back from the brink of obscurity.

But Palm wasn't always the mobile developers' darling. Back when the Pre was but a glimmer in Palm's eye, Google Android was the smartphone OS du jour. Like Palm, Google has taken the value of a strong developer community to heart, releasing the Android code as open source and offering developer previews of its latest technologies. It even went as far as to give out free handsets to developers at this year's Google I/O conference.

[ iPhone developers are frustrated too by the Apple App Store's "ayatollahs" and slow bug-fix updates, as InfoWorld's Bill Snyder explains. | Considering Palm Pre development? Read the InfoWorld Test Center's Mojo SDK review first. ]

But all is not well in Android-land. A year after the platform's launch, second-generation Android handsets are now available to U.S. consumers, but they're hardly leaping off the store shelves. According to the research firm Canalys, Google Android commands only about a 3 percent share of the smartphone OS market, while Apple's iPhone has shown an astounding 627 percent growth in the past year.

No surprise that Android developers are starting to grumble. Google is learning the hard way that building a developer community isn't enough; you'd better also have the goods to back it up.

Android after the honeymoon
On paper, Android seems like a developer's dream come true. In the past, mobile developers were saddled with arcane toolkits and closed, proprietary OSes, but Android is all about openness. Compared to Apple's iPhone OS, Android would seem to offer a better value proposition to developers in almost every respect. But that's all conceptual. Unfortunately, while Android looks good on paper, in the real world, execution is what counts, and so far Google's has been lacking.

Compared to Apple, Google's developer documentation is scanty at best, and it doesn't help that the Android OS still seems to be something of a work in progress. No problem; early adopters are usually willing to overlook a few growing pains in a new platform -- and that goes double for developers.

That is, they would overlook them -- if they could get their hands on the hardware at all. These days, a growing segment of the software development community lives outside the United States, where Android handsets are still hard to come by. How many developers actually flew in from Bangalore to get their free Android phones at the recent Google I/O conference?

Worse, the handsets themselves present a moving target. An iPhone is an iPhone, more or less -- there are a few models on the market, but they're subject to Apple's tight control of the platform and predictable release schedule. Android developers, on the other hand, are told to ready themselves for an explosion of new devices, each with its own unique characteristics.

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