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?

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That variety is good in principle, but it makes developing on the Android platform challenging, particularly for the lucrative games market. What screen resolution will the user's handset support? What kind of input devices will it provide? How much power will its processor have? On the iPhone these are known quantities, but when coding for the Android platform it's all up in the air. Inevitably that uncertainty means some apps will perform poorly on some handsets, which in turn means disenchanted customers.

Does Google really care about developers?
To see that disenchantment in action, look no further than the Android Market. According to games developer Larva Labs, sales on Google's app store have been abysmal, even though its products top the bestseller list. Little wonder, when Google makes it easier for customers to return products than to buy them. Customers can request a full refund anytime within 24 hours, but before they can start downloading apps they have to sign up for Google Checkout. Dissatisfaction with the Android Market has led to a lively discussion on Google's developer forums, with no clear resolution in sight.

Something better change soon. In fact, the whole Android experience should serve as a wake-up call to Google. Here is a company that's been content to leave shipping products in "public beta" for years -- "Don't mind the outages, it's just a beta!" -- but that attitude simply won't fly in the cutthroat world of mobile development.

Judging by Google's track record, I wouldn't blame developers for wondering just how committed the search giant is to the Android platform. Yeah, we get the message: What's good for the Web is good for Google, and a solid, Web-enabled mobile phone is good for the Web. But where does that leave independent developers -- the ones who are building apps to run on the Android platform, not just in the browser?

A strong developer community isn't the only key to a successful platform; a great user experience is even more important. But Google isn't likely to broaden its market if it continues to alienate software developers. Google is asking independent developers to stake their businesses on its OS. Instead of treating Android like a hobby, it should step up and do what it's asking its developers to do.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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