Google must woo mobile app developers

Mobile-application developers aren't sold on Google's plans for an open operating system for cell phones.

Google executives have a lot of work ahead of them as they court application developers skeptical of the search king's new open software platform for mobile devices.

Android, unveiled earlier this week, is touted as the answer to a major problem facing mobile-application developers: how to make developing applications for mobile devices as open and easy as developing applications for the Web.

Most experts and consumers agree that accessing the Internet on a mobile handset is very different from accessing it on a PC. Often, users get stripped-down versions of Web sites, with far fewer applications available. The shortcomings have been blamed on whoever controls the network, the device itself, and the underlying technology. Also, the mobile market is incredibly fragmented, and software developers are forced to support various systems.

Google believes it can change all of this with its Android software platform and its Open Handset Alliance, a collection of 34 companies working together to embed this technology into chipsets, handsets, and services.

But mobile-application developers interviewed by CNET News.com say they've heard these promises before. While they're not saying "no" to Android, they're wary. They worry the new effort will do little more than fragment the market further by making them develop yet another iteration of their applications. And they're keen to see what Google produces when it unveils an Android software developer's kit on November 12.

"Right now, Android just adds to the headache of developing different versions of our applications for different operating systems," said Kay Johansson, CTO of MobiTV. "It will be just another platform we have to support. I think for the Google platform to really be a game-changer it's going to have to offer more than just an open-source operating system for a mobile phone. It will have to create mobile Internet devices that happen to make phone calls."

Google did not return calls for comment.

Developing applications for the traditional Internet is simple compared to developing them for the mobile Web, because there are common operating systems, browsers, and standardized programming languages. What's more, the underlying services delivering applications on the Internet are agnostic, meaning that regardless of whether someone is using a Comcast cable modem service or a Verizon DSL service, the application looks exactly the same.

Struggling with the variables
The situation on a mobile device is quite different. Developers must contend with several different factors when programming for a mobile device. Not only must they take into account the different shapes and sizes of the screens, they also have to adjust applications based on the particular differences among various operating systems and carrier networks.

In the end, an application developer must often write dozens of versions of one application to port onto hundreds of handsets. While this is not an impossible task, it's time-consuming and expensive, and many experts say it stifles innovation.

"The big difference between the mobile Web and the traditional Internet is that on the traditional Internet I can connect from any broadband provider and get the same experience," said Iain Gillott, founder of iGillott Research. "That's just not the case on the mobile Web, and it probably never will be."

Google is not the first company to promise the mobile phone community an easier and more streamlined way to develop new applications. Sun Microsystems has tried to do this with its mobile Java programming language. Qualcomm developed BREW, a standardized environment for developing applications. There's also the Symbian operating system, developed by a consortium of handset makers including Nokia and Sony Ericsson. The software is licensed to a number of handset manufacturers and is the No. 1 smartphone operating system for handsets in the world. Microsoft also offers its Windows Mobile platform on a number of different devices and has gained significant traction in the last few years.

So far these companies haven't truly created the same kind of open environment that spawned the development of successful Web applications such as Google's YouTube, Yahoo's Flickr, or Facebook.

"Java promised to allow a 'write it once, publish many' model," said Mauro Lollo, CEO of Movidity, a company that has created a new way to stream video on cell phones. "But the reality has been much different. There is still a lot of customization that needs to be done depending on the device and the carrier."

Phones come in all different shapes and sizes. They have different graphics and processing capabilities, causing a problem that's acute for the less sophisticated "feature phones," which make up the vast majority of the market.

But beyond the device constraints, applications also have to be tweaked depending on which carrier network the phone is using. "We have to deal with a lot of idiosyncrasies and challenges that carriers place on us," Lollo said. "For instance, some carriers cripple certain functionality on their phones. So we have to re-engineer some parts of the software to accommodate that."

Some mobile application developers argue that Google's Android will only confuse the market further by adding one more operating system that will require support.

"We already have plenty of good options for operating systems," said Sal Dhanani, co-founder and senior director of marketing for Telenav, a maker of GPS systems. "It would be better if the industry could rally around one of the ones we already use instead of adding another one to the mix."

But getting consensus on a single operating system is easier said than done, since the companies that have developed these platforms all have a vested interest in seeing their solution dominate. Alliances have been formed in the past to promote some standardization, but the problem has always been that the companies involved are reluctant to give up control.

Some developers worry the same issues could plague the Open Handset Alliance. While Google has rallied some of largest companies in the mobile ecosystem--including chipmaker Qualcomm; handset makers Samsung Electronics, Motorola, and LG Electronics; and mobile operators T-Mobile, Sprint-Nextel, and Telecom Italia--it is still missing some significant players. For example, U.S. operators Verizon Wireless and AT&T haven't signed on to the alliance, nor has European operator Vodafone. And Nokia, which is the largest handset maker in the world, is also not a part of the alliance.

"Without AT&T and Verizon Wireless, I can't see it working," said Dhanani. "It truly has to be an ecosystem that has everyone involved. Otherwise it just becomes yet another platform that we all have to write to."

Still, some developers think that Google may be just the right company with just the right expertise to finally institute change. While details of the Android platform haven't been made public yet, some believe Google will incorporate its advertising technology into handsets. If it does, mobile advertising could subsidize the cost of the devices and services, providing incentives for carriers to offer Android phones.

"If a carrier can sell a $5-a-month service for an Android phone, how could another carrier offering its own service for $30 a month compete?" Gillott said. "They can't. They'll be forced to offer Android phones too. The economics are what will ultimately drive adoption," he said.

Morgan Slain, CEO of the small mobile-application company Splash Data, agrees. He believes that what makes Google's platform attractive is that because the operating system is free and will likely have advertising built into it, it could bring rich applications to mass market mobile devices at very low prices. These feature phones are often the most difficult to write applications for because they all have different capabilities and use different versions of Java.

But Slain believes that a truly open platform on these lower-end devices could expand the market for companies such as his that are too small to afford to develop applications for the wide array of lower-end feature phones. Currently, his company focuses on developing applications for smartphones.

"I agree that, initially, Android will be just another platform that we'll all have to support," he said. "But I also think it could really expand the market. And that's a trade-off that is really worth it to us."

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