Exploring Android's origins: Developers dish on making apps for the 'wild west'
Android becomes a 5-year-old on Tuesday, and the app development community deserves almost as much credit as Google for making the OS such a smashing success.
Without apps, your smartphone couldn’t identify the name of that song playing in the coffee shop, almost as if by magic. Nor could it stream the latest episode of House of Cards. It couldn’t Instagram something. Or “like.” Or tweet. Without apps, your handset basically becomes a dumbphone.
Indeed, Android has become one of the most successful operating systems of all time largely on the strength of its app ecosystem.
Since the app developers are the ones working hands-on with Android, we figured we’d pick their brains about what it’s been like developing for the Android platform over its first half-decade, and what they predict for the future of Android.
In the beginning
Android started out as a small company with just a few key players, including Andy Rubin, co-founder and CEO of Danger; Nick Sears, a VP at T-Mobile; Rich Miner, a VP at Orange; and Chris White, who served as the head of design and interface development at WebTV. The Android team worked out of their offices in Palo Alto, mere miles away from Google’s campus in Mountain View, with a goal of building a “smarter” mobile software platform for phones and digital cameras that would ultimately rival major competitors like Nokia’s Symbian and Microsoft’s Windows Mobile.
On October 22, 2008, after Google acquired Android, the T-Mobile G1 (also known as the HTC Dream) was released. It was the first Android phone available to consumers, and it ultimately sold a little more than one million units. Android’s biggest selling point was its open nature. The platform made it easy for aspiring developers to learn new tricks of the trade, and for entrepreneurs to get their product off the ground. “You [could] do what you want with this platform,” says Joe Braidwood, chief marketing officer at SwiftKey, a third-party keyboard app for Android. Braidwood and the team at SwiftKey began developing for the Android platform right when Google was actively reaching out for developers to bring apps to its platform. “It [was] much more open…more friendly.”
For developers like Monique Farantzos, the president and cofounder of DoubleTwist, an app that enables over-the-air music syncing between your Mac or PC and an Android phone, putting her team’s app in the Android Marketplace simply made sense. “From early on we made a bet that Android was going to become the biggest operating system in the history of humanity, frankly,” she said in a phone call. “We could see that because it was an open platform [and] it was open to multiple manufacturers.”
Android’s journey to the top wasn’t without a few kinks. Its first Google-developed phone, the Nexus One, bombed for a variety of reasons: limited carrier support, online-only ordering, middling hardware, not to mention stiff competition from Apple’s iPhone 3GS. “Apple was a tough act to follow,” wrote Daniel Danker, Chief Product Officer at Shazam, in an email. “It is never easy when you’re not first-to-market with a product.”
Users began to peg Android as an unregulated, feral mobile operating system—an accusation that still crops up to this day. “[It] was a little more wild west,” says Ryan Oldenburg, who has been developing with Android since it launched and now works on PushBullet, an Android app that enables users to push files and other data to their Android devices, straight to the Notification tray. “You could do more, but it didn’t always mean that people would do good things.”
Then there were the minor issues that developers had to contend with. For instance, Google’s problems with its Checkout services frustrated those who found it difficult to foster in-app transactions. “Google Checkout was pulled on by the Android guys to allow monetization features, but the integration wasn’t that smooth,” recalls Braidwood.
Google Checkout was intended to help small-time developers manage in-app purchases and refunds, and act as a mediator for overseas exchange rates, but “it was kind of thrust into this very different ecosystem where the purchases were very small,” Braidwood explains.
Google worked through the issues alongside developers, including Braidwood and the team at SwiftKey. It made the company appear friendly to its developers, and helped foster positive relationships between them—it even helped some developers overlook the fact that some features could be fixed only by trial and error. “It’s bittersweet,” Braidwood says. “You’re working in an emerging platform…with the hiccups of an emerging platform.”
That close relationship with developers helped Google define Android’s roadmap—it can be seen in the annual gatherings at Google’s I/O developer conference, its overhaul of the developer console, and the way it fosters innovation with Google Ventures. “In terms of the Google Play developer console, we are streets ahead of where we were ... when it was just extremely early days for everybody,” says Braidwood. “Over the space of five years, [Android] went from this nerdy unknown to the biggest smartphone platform in the world.”
As more apps poured into what is now known as the Google Play store, Google hired Matias Duarte, an interface designer, to help create and institute design guidelines so that Android would exhibit a more polished feel. “One thing Google has become more vocal about is developers following the Android guidelines a little more closely,” says Farantzos. The Holo theme that is prominent now in Android 4.0 and beyond began with Duarte, who introduced the basis for the revamped interface in Android 3.0 Honeycomb.
However, Farantzos expresses a bit of trepidation about the uniform design guidelines. She fears that developers might end up feeling more constrained when it comes to differentiating their application from others, which may result in too many apps adopting the same aesthetic. “There’s going to be a little bit of a dance around that...between being boring and following a universal set of guidelines. I don’t think Android quite has that right mix yet. Hopefully in the next couple of years we’re going to see that.”
Oldenburg does imagine a major design shift happening in the next round of announcements—perhaps something that exhibits the “right mix” that Farantzos alluded to. “They’re...going to make a change that reestablishes what the new Holo interface is,” he predicted. “Apps [that look like Ice Cream Sandwich] will still look good, but they’ll look a little more polished throughout.”
Android’s elephant in the room is its fragmentation issue—too many devices with differing specs, capabilities, resolutions, and versions of the operating system, all on the market together. The problem is exacerbated by companies that have “forked” Android into their own versions, as Amazon has done with its Kindle Fire line.
”The number one challenge [we’ve] encountered since 2011 is the Android fragmentation issue,” wrote Anson Shiong, CEO of AirDroid, in an email. “There are so many Android devices. We often need to make choices between spending more resources in making AirDroid compatible with more Android devices or developing new features.”
Shazam’s Danker agrees, writing in his email to TechHive that the Android and Google Play ecosystem should be tightened up so that things like monetization become effortless, adding that, “fragmentation…needs to be [reined] in to reduce friction in engineering for the platform.”
Google’s announcement at this year’s I/O Developer Conference—that it was going to re-architect its native apps and other integral parts of the operating system to make them easier to update without needing approval from carriers and manufacturers—helped instill a little more faith from developers. “[Google] realized that they had themselves in a little bit of a corner with how fast they could get the manufacturers to put updates out on their phone,” Oldenburg suggests. “They’ve skirted the issue altogether by separating their own apps from the operating system, and even separating features.”
Most developers doubt that that the fragmentation issue would eventually plague other areas of Google’s portfolio. Braidwood believes that unless Google opened up the Glass and Chromecast API for other OEMs to crib, they remain safe in that regard. “As the Chromecast proves, Google can launch great new hardware that plugs into Android regardless of the OEM or version, so I think the same will be true moving forward,” he later wrote in an email.
Where to next?
Google’s main objective doesn’t appear to be grabbing market share away from competitors with its Android platform—if anything, that’s the goal of device manufacturers (we’re looking at you, Samsung). Instead, many developers believe that Android is just the basis for Google’s overall end goal: to make technology that is accessible and easy to use.
“Google Glass is a great first step into a much cooler, integrated augmented reality experience where you’re walking around the world and there’s technology embellishing it,” says Braidwood. “The fact that they’ve now got the world’s biggest mobile platform is just a stepping stone to them providing that level of insight and those kinds of services that help people get what they want from their lives.”
Over the next five years, perhaps consumers will forget about the devices in their pockets as they shift to technology that’s more organic, like a smartwatch, or a pair of glasses that feeds you real-time data. “[It’s about] the connected you rather than the connected phone,” explains Braidwood. Whether consumers want wearable, personally integrated tech remains to be seen, as the mobile world undergoes the next stage of its evolution.
For now, it’s clear that Android is leading the journey from mobile to that next step—and developers are following along in great faith. “I can’t thank myself enough for getting started on Android,” Oldenburg declared, excited for his future. “It has carried me very far and it’s only going to go further.”