A warm welcome for Android

Nikita Ivanov and his 14 employees are working on an application that would harness the processing power within millions of cell phones to create one big supercomputer. The idea is to enable companies and government agencies to exploit all the idle computing power in their employees' mobile phones and perhaps even handsets belonging to non-employees who have agreed to lease that spare capacity.

To create this 'grid' computing application, Ivanov's startup firm has chosen a mobile software platform that doesn't yet run on a single commercially available phone. Rather than Windows Mobile or the Symbian operating system, GridGain is using Android, a platform spearheaded by Google (GOOG) that has drawn scores of software developers with its promise of flexibility to create unusual applications.

GridGain is one of thousands of Android-based projects in the works. Another would enable users to record and share audio tours of museums or galleries. One is a music player that can connect a cell-phone user with people who have similar musical tastes and happen to be nearby. All underscore the ways that developers hope to use Android to take phones in new directions with greater ease than today's prominent wireless platforms. To succeed, though, they, along with Google and its partners, will need to work some kinks out of the system.

No support for Bluetooth

It's telling that Android, first unveiled by the Google-led Open Handset Alliance in November, is spurring all this interest among developers even though no wireless carriers have definitively agreed to allow such handsets on their networks. Or that Android is still missing many key capabilities such as support for Bluetooth wireless connections to headsets and other devices.

Nearly 200 industry movers and shakers recently surveyed by Chetan Sharma Consulting said they believe Android-based mobiles won't make even a small dent during 2008 in the smartphone market, which is dominated by the Nokia-controlled (NOK) Symbian platform, Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows Mobile, and Research In Motion's (RIMM) BlackBerry.

But Android's late arrival on the market doesn't seem to be weighing heavily on many developers, thanks in no small measure to the reassurance that comes from Google's financial might. In the first two months, programmers downloaded the software development kit for Android more than 250,000 times, according to Google. While only a tiny fraction of such downloads typically result in an actual application being written, the display of interest is striking. By contrast, developers downloaded the Symbian OS Getting Started guide some 70,000 times in the 12 months ended in September.

Obstacles for Wi-Fi army

It's not just small software firms that are showing interest. Motorola (MOT) is trying to fill 21 openings for engineers familiar with Android. Most large software companies are playing with Android in their labs.

Still, the success of Android hinges on Google's ability to get the platform in better working order. One developer who really needs help is Peter Wojtowicz. He and several collaborators are using Android to build a cell-phone game called Wi-Fi Army, where competing teams would hunt each other using Google Maps and location data from the Wi-Fi hotspots nearest the rival camp's cell phones. Upon finding an enemy, a player uses the phone's camera as a rifle scope to shoot.

But Wi-Fi Army faces a more significant hurdle than enemy bullets: Android doesn't yet support Wi-Fi wireless technology.

 

And the lack of support for Bluetooth means that Wojtowicz and his co-developers can't get going on a feature that would enable team members to strategize their moves using wireless headsets. Writing the game application 'is not easy,' Wojtowicz says. 'But we are looking at it in the long run. Google has a lot of money to burn.'

Attracting young, hip developers

Andy Rubin, senior director of mobile platforms at Google, says the company is trying to release a new iteration of the software each month, a breakneck pace in the industry where major versions of Windows Mobile come out once every two years. Google is also redoubling its efforts to be more responsive to developers. On Jan. 23, the company is hosting a developers shindig at its Googleplex headquarters. There are also plans for an online feedback system to allow developers to report bugs and request changes by Google's engineers.

The excitement around Android also highlights a generational split in the mobile developer community. For Jason Aaron, the decision to use Android and Apple's iPhone platform to develop his mobile application was a no brainer. Young, hip programmers he'd hired simply weren't interested in the mainstream wireless software platforms to write the code for What'sOpen, an application that tells people whether local businesses are open or closed. People coding for Symbian or Windows Mobile are 'older, accountant-type developers,' Aaron says. 'IPhone and Android developers are cool. It's a youthful, social crowd that goes the other way. Are you going to be with Microsoft or the hip, cool Google and Apple (AAPL) crowd‾'

Microsoft says it's not seeing mass developer defections. 'I have not seen a difference' in developer interest in Windows Mobile, says Daniel Bouie, senior product manager for Microsoft's mobile communications business. 'If you are looking to make money off of your software, the number of devices in the market and the strength of developer tools [that we offer] are going to be your No. 1 consideration.' Indeed, Windows Mobile shipped on some 11 million devices last year, while Symbian shipped on 55 million through just the first nine months of 2007.

Tapping idle power

To beat those odds, Android programmers are trying to conceive of capabilities that have never been seen on mobile devices before. As Baris Karadogan, a venture capitalist with $1.5 billion Velocity Interactive Group, explains it, Apple took years to develop the iPhone, which took the wireless industry by storm in 2007 with novel features such as finger swiping. 'Android (BusinessWeek.com, 11/5/07) enables people to quickly create new iPhones,' Karadogan says.

Many of these new applications could be revolutionary, in part because Android may be adapted for more than cell phones. Google's Rubin points out that Android is 'generic enough, it can be used with different screens and with wired and wireless devices.' Once Android-based phones start hitting the market, Google may start putting out additional code that would allow developers to use Android on other consumer electronics with computing power that might lay idle for long stretches at a time, from TVs and set-top boxes to gaming consoles and media players and even sensor networks.

With that sort of flexibility, GridGain's distributed computing concept could one day be used by the military to provide quick computing power in battlefield conditions. Searching for a missing comrade, a soldier might take a series of photos across the battlefield.

 

The combined computing power of all the soldiers' radios in the vicinity could then be used to analyze those shots against a database containing the missing soldier's photo. But such applications are still a long ways off, as Android is still a very early work in progress. 'Nothing is ideal in version one,' GridGain's Ivanov says.

Kharif is a senior writer for BusinessWeek.com in Portland, Ore.

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