Google plays Hide and Seek with Android SDK

How to lose friends and alienate developers

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Google's strict code of secrecy may work fine for protecting its internal operations. But the company isn't ingratiating itself to software developers by keeping major updates to its Android mobile software platform locked away in a Mountain View dungeon. Now, even those developers once very committed to pushing Google's technology forward are thinking about abandoning Android – the most closed open platform to not yet exist.

Over at Google's official Android discussion group, independent coder Nicolas Gramlich recently posted an ad hoc online petition calling on Google to at least tell developers why they can't get a new and improved SDK for the fledgling mobile platform. Google hasn't publicly updated the Android software developer's kit in more than four months.

"In order not to lose many highly encouraged developers, I think it's time to release some news about the development process of the SDK. Maybe let us know why we have to live with these long cycles," reads his open letter to Google's Android overseers. "In my personal opinion it is not the right choice to keep developers in the dark. We, the developers, are the absolute base of success to the whole Android platform."

Gramlich is the man behind AndDev.org, an online Android developer community that boasts 3,075 registered members. He began coding for the as-yet-unreleased platform in November, the very day Google first unveiled the SDK. And he sees himself as one of the platform's "biggest fans." But he fears that Google's ongoing Android secrecy is alienating its most ardent supporters.

"Developers are getting annoyed and some have moved and some are thinking of moving to another platform," he tells The Reg. "I hope Google will think twice about how long it waits for the next public-release."

Of course, there are other reasons to code for other platforms. Other platforms actually exist.

Google had promised a real live Android phone by the end of the year, and now, even that's a stretch, with reported delays on the prowl. And, many developers argue, the company's SDK silence has set the platform back even further.

"I lost patience long ago. will keep coding/waiting untill the end of july. then ill either switch to the iphone (if sells are good) or windows mobile," reads a mostly intelligible post from one of the many developers voicing their support for the Gramlich petition. "i see absolutely no use in working with a barely finished SDK on an emulator without a piece of hardware in my hand. MOBILE phone development is no fun if you cant test it MOBILE."

Google unleashed the last major update to the Android SDK on February 13. The last minor tweak arrived on March 3. And in the eight months since Android was first announced, the company hasn't given developers even the slightest hint about when updates would arrive. "This is the biggest mistake that Google could have made: not to have small public-release-cycles," Gramlich says.

He's doubly ticked off because he knows that a new SDK exists. Google is sharing updates with certain VIP developers - the fifty finalists for the company's Android Developer Challenge, a coding contest offering $10m in prize money. Finalist Zach Hobbs wouldn't speak to us about the SDK because - like the other finalists - he signed a Google non-disclosure agreement before getting his hands on those updates.

Google has already annoyed countless developers by keeping the Android source code under wraps. Though the company calls Android an open platform, it won't actually release the source code until the first Android phone arrives sometime in the unspecified future.

As The Colored Balls Turn

At least Google was open about the source code being closed. The company's been nothing but coy about the SDK. And it seems perverse that it would hand updates to some developers but not others.

"The biggest mistake they've made...is a big lack of communication regarding this business," reads a recent blog post from Austria-based developer David Welton, known for his Hecl mobile scripting language. "If they explained in a convincing way why they needed to do things that way, they would go a long ways to allaying the frustrations felt by many."

After conversations with Google's Android brain trust, Welton says they're well aware the SDK situation has rubbed developers the wrong way. "[Google's Android developers] understand that they're hurting their development community through this ambiguous stance," Welton tells us. "This attitude is probably coming from upper management...There's this mysterious thing where the developers can't talk about certain things and they can't talk about why they can't talk."

In other words, Google is acting like Google. "We continue to receive feedback from developers on our previous SDK releases," a company spokesman tells us. "We're working to incorporate many of these suggestions into the next release of the SDK, which we expect to be out in the coming weeks."

In the meantime, developers like Gramlich aren't just annoyed. They're hamstrung. As you might expect, that five-month-old SDK is on the fritz. "There are some open bugs inside the current SDK, like the Mediaplayer, that loves to crash, or the Geocoder, that is just a local database with two entries and therefor simply unusable," Gramlich says.

Is this the best way to play catch up with the Jesus Phone? The Apple App Store is already open. ®

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