Google's Android - big name, big question on payment
Inside the mobile matrix, part 2
If you're a Trekkie it may have already occurred to you that Google is a little like the Borg. The company, it seems, is determined to assimilate all information-, advertising- and search-based services in its path. And now, mobile has fallen under the company’s rapacious gaze.
In the second part of my three-part overview assessing the technical and business considerations developers should weigh before endorsing today’s new and emerging mobile platforms, I shall tackle the latest addition to the Borg cube: the appropriately named Android.
Google announced the Android platform late last year and it is already clear the company means business. A quick look here should tell you everything you need to know about this platform and how seriously Google is approaching the project.
From my perspective, this level of information and resourcing bodes well for a developer considering Android. As part of the new Open Mobile Alliance that appears to be gaining some serious momentum among manufacturers of handsets, Android should have no shortage of devices for the possible deployment of new software.
The marketing might of Google along with its aforementioned Borg-like, unstoppable momentum are two additional check marks over in the positive column. It is highly unlikely given all the factors above that you'll find the number of potential users for Android applications lacking.
Another area in which Android purports to offer advantages to skilled developers is in its ability to let you access virtually any part of the physical interface of a device that you wish, unlike certain systems. According to the documentation, you can even alter the appearance of the dialer if that's what spins your propeller.
Standard APIs have been developed that allow you to call on the core functions of the device making this platform functionally about as open as a mobile development platform can get. In addition, the SDK (which can be downloaded from the site listed above) is designed to get you up and developing as quickly as possible. It features both advanced debugging tools and a device emulator so you can test out your new code on the fly, even if you don't have the exact handset for which you are developing.
As if the benefits I've already detailed aren't sufficient to get you excited Google has added a small bribe to get your attention. Cold, hard cash in the form of a $10m developer challenge that will reward the most talented and creative developers with prizes of up to $275,000 for creating applications that, in Google's words, "surprise and delight, rethink interface, take advantage of mash-ups or offer unique humanitarian benefits". You can learn more about this here.
There are, though, two areas where developers should be concerned. The first is that with this much fanfare, publicity and the contest on top of it all, this platform may prove to be by far too popular among developers. While it is certainly a good thing for the platform to be popular, the intense competition might see developers experience difficulty differentiating applications from so many competing projects.
Few things have the potential to be as frustrating as working for months on a new application only to discover that another developer launched nearly the same application just a week or two before you finished development on yours.
Given the extremely high level of awareness that Android has generated among the developer community it seemed to me prudent to at least suggest this as a possibility.
The second area where I have questions, if not outright concerns, relates to that all-important financial piece of the puzzle. We all know how Google makes money: it gives services away in exchange for more opportunities to market to end users via contextual advertising. The question is, as a developer, how do you get paid?
Google isn't likely to pay for applications and there is a big question mark over whether the public - that have now been weaned on Google's free everything approach to services - will also pay. So are you going to get a percentage of the ad revenue, instead? That is possible, if your application is suited to delivering advertising in conjunction with people using your software, but what if that's not the case? What then? I wish I had the answer but I don't - in fact, nobody seems able to answer that at this point.
Overall, then, Android appears a logical choice for developers from the perspective of the openness of the platform and the fact it has the considerable weight of Google and a good spread of the mobile industry behind it. There are also certainly plenty of attractive reasons for wanting to take advantage of all the shiny new services that Google is trotting out.
The sticking point, though, remains revenue. I’d strongly advise any developer to get an answer to the question of how they get paid, before investing too much precious time building an application that everyone loves but - like a Las Vegas slot machine - never pays out.®