The Money (and Job) Trail Leads to Android
It's one thing to track the future of a mobile platform by projecting trends in unit sales, wireless operator contract wins, and so on. Based on traditional analysis, it looks like the iPhone and Android will be running neck and neck in 2012 in terms of global market share. I've always believed that the more reliable predictions are rooted in tracking investment not by consumers or investors, but developers. Software development dollars being budgeted and spent now are aimed at reaping the opportunities of markets two years away.
I live in a region so thick with telecommunications companies and the businesses that serve them that I can derive a decent forecast of the mobile and wireless sectors by standing on my roof with binoculars. Everything from freeway traffic to the For Sale signs in front yards are barometers for mobile's future. But I've found that the simplest indicator of all is a conversation with a few well-informed recruiters. Recruiters that deal in mobile and embedded application and system software developers have their finger on the pulse of R&D expenditures.
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I've learned that while overall R&D spending on information technology is slack as companies wait out the recession, the mobile industry is growing quite aggressively, or at least reaching in new directions that call for added staff.
What are employers looking for? A few are trawling for bargains, as employers tend to do in down economies, looking for overachievers who are willing to do the work of several for the salary of one. But most are realistic in their requirements, and those requirements frequently call for familiarity with Google's Android.
Android: As a journalist, technologist, and developer, I find it fascinating and thrilling that the technological "right" choice, by virtue of being free and open (in all relevant regards), broadly implemented, and commercially backed, is also where handset makers, independent software vendors, and wireless operators see their best shot at profits.
Groupthink among this bunch is rare. You couldn't point to more fragmented, turf-hoarding industries than telecommunications and mobile, so what is it that has so many companies with competing interests betting so heavily on Android?
It turns out that in the modern world, the attributes that make Android the right choice according to geek morality turn out to be compatible with profitability. The platform is open to customization and differentiation at any level of depth while preserving interoperability across implementations. Android's use of standard development tools makes it retargetable to new handsets and even new instruction set architectures (MIPS recently joined the Open Handset Alliance) using existing compilers.
Perhaps more than anything, it's Android's lack of need for up-front investment in firmware licenses and proprietary tools that encourages exploration, experimentation, and innovation. There is no downside to trying an idea out on Android. If that platform turns out not to be a fit, it's a relatively short trip from Android to Java on BlackBerry or Symbian. Now, with Google's Android 1.6 "Donut" base firmware and its Native Development Kit (extended to support native OpenGL ES 1.1 for GUIs and games), Android can begin to host mobile client solutions that require the performance and power efficiency of machine code.
It's that last bit, the progression of Android as a platform for native user-level development, that I consider key to its trajectory. For Android to take share from Symbian, iPhone, and Windows Mobile, and keep from losing ground to Palm's WebOS, it needs strong native (C, C++, assembly language) support. Not so that it can pass Apple's 100,000-app mark (or whatever milestone the App Store has crossed), but to encourage inventive companies and developers to look to Android as the smartest platform for trying new ideas, regardless of the eventual target. I think that's why relatively scarce R&D dollars are flowing to Android now. No matter which way the market swings, it's hard to imagine how an investment in Android R&D could go to waste.