Developer interest in Android is surging, but is Google ready?

Jason Ankenyeditor's corner

Sometime within the next 12 months, Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android is poised to eclipse Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS as the mobile operation system most important to the developer community according to independent technology analyst Ovum's second annual Developer Insights survey. Ovum reports that while Android is gaining in importance among developers, most respondents are building apps for both Android and iOS, not one or the other. Ovum also notes increasing developer interest in Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows Phone and Research In Motion's (NASDAQ:RIMM) BlackBerry as well as increasing momentum behind emerging cross-platform opportunities, with an emphasis on web-based standards like HTML5. On the decline: Developer enthusiasm for fading operating systems like Windows Mobile, Symbian and webOS as well as traditional cross-platform mobile application development approaches like Java and Flash.

Given Android's remarkable growth over the last few years, it was inevitable developer interest in the platform would eclipse iOS sooner or later: Nielsen reports that Android powers 51.7 percent of smartphones sold in the U.S. during the fourth quarter of 2011, far ahead of iOS at 37.0 percent. The question is whether Google is ready for the next wave of Android developers, and the signs are positive. Earlier this month, the company introduced the web-based Android Developer Portal, offering developers insight into creating more stylish and sophisticated applications--a blow against the popular perception that Android apps are significantly clunkier and less visually appealing than their iOS counterparts. In addition, Google recently announced that inclusion of its unmodified Holo theme family is a compatibility requirement for all devices running the new Android 4.0/Ice Cream Sandwich and forward, a move designed to ensure a more consistent user interface and application development environment.

Google isn't stopping there. In a comprehensive interview with Wired conducted during the recent Consumer Electronics Show, Google director of Android user experience Matias Duarte makes it clear the company is going to continue offering developers guidance on building better, more user-friendly Android apps. "We want to just kind of open up our studio's doors, if you will," Duarte said. "We want to show you how we think, and how we designed Ice Cream Sandwich to work. What all its principles and its rules and its conventions are so you don't have to try and discover that yourself... This is something that developers and designers are really hungry for. For any platform, it's really important to understand what its conventions and patterns are. And so this is our chance--now that we've finished running the marathon to get the product out the door--to show them how they too can make apps that look and work as simply and as beautifully as the apps that we've made for Ice Cream Sandwich."

That doesn't mean Google will begin telling Android developers what they can and can't do, however. "In computer ecosystems, the public decides how successful applications will be after they hit the market," Duarte says. "So within our style guide we have certain things that we think are absolutely how one should make an Android app. But there are other variables--examples in which code is good in some cases and bad in others. There it's left up to you to make a judgment call as to which pattern you should adopt. There, we don't have a hard and fast rule. But in either case, there's nothing that we do to enforce that."

The endgame is an Android ecosystem that's better for developers and consumers alike, Duarte states. "Developers won't have to guess as much," he explains. "They'll understand what the conventions are. If they want to break them, they'll know they're breaking them. And sometimes you have to break the rules. But it always helps to know that you're breaking the rules. Of course, that ultimately helps the end users. It creates an environment where more of the applications really have that cohesion and coherency that everyone really longs for." Android may never achieve the cohesion and consistency of iOS, but it's improving--and just in time for the influx of developers coming its way.--Jason