Whether or not such a two-sided conflict will actually play out in the larger mobile-phone industry, today Android vs. iPhone is the battle raging in the mind of every fanboy, gadget geek—and software developer. Since it has all the right themes for a Tolkien-esque epic whose outcome largely rests with small, furry-footed but pure-hearted creatures—developers—we asked the developers of popular mobile apps such as Pandora, TuneWiki and Instinctiv Shuffle, mostly people working on both platforms, to tell us whether it's better to write for the no-strings-attached open Android or the more popular but catch-prone iPhone. Android may not be an overnight success, but iPhone had better watch its back.
Android: iPhone's Refugee Camp
While Android's open approach undoubtedly led some developers to pick it over the iPhone from the start, Apple's byzantine approval process and perhaps anti-competitive protection of its own apps—Podcaster and MailWrangler being two of the most prominent—have definitely driven some devs into Android's open arms, or at least made them stare longingly at it.
One such dev was the maker of the ridiculously popular Instictiv Shuffle app for jailbroken iPhones. Currently, iPhone apps aren't allowed to touch a user's music or iTunes functionality in any way. Instinctiv CEO Justin Smithline told us that "the minute we found out about the restrictions of the SDK...we started up an Android effort." Nevertheless it was clear in our interview that they loved the iPhone platform, using the word "amazing" more than once to talk about it.
Free But Not Equal
One of the original dustups around Android was that the 50 finalists in the Android Developer Challenge received early, privileged access to SDK updates that the rest of the developer community didn't get. While it makes sense that Google would want to fast-track Android's potential killer apps in time for the launch, it also goes against Android's atmosphere of openness.
It seems like there is some favoritism—whether it's toward specific devs or just toward the best apps is uncertain. TuneWiki is a finalist and one of Android's 10 most exciting apps. Amidst complaints about the lack of updates to Android's SDK until the recent 0.9 release and Google's secrecy, TuneWiki CEO Amnon Sarig told us that "I cannot say good enough things to say how [Google] treated us. They gave us whatever we wanted. They want us to succeed."
Since TuneWiki looks like it'll be a fantastic app, it's hard to argue with this—why shouldn't Google devote the most resources to the best and brightest, the stuff that'll make its platform shine? Logically, it should, given how much of the platform's success ultimately lies in the hands of developers. Depending on how you see Android's raison d'tre, that might be deeply troubling philosophically, on the other hand.
Nuts and Bolts
One thing that every developer we talked to pretty much agreed about is that coding for Android is not exactly warm robotic apple pie. While it's commonly assumed that Android development is done using run-of-the-mill Java, the developer of BreadCrumbz—a very cool image-based navigation app that's one of the 50 finalists, told us that the Android framework is actually "very different" from a regular Java stack, so that even "experienced Java developers still need to learn." TuneWiki's devs agreed that there's a learning curve, but both said that since it's still Java at the end of the day, it's a short one.
Instinctiv was more down on Android Java, compared to iPhone OS X, when it came to porting their app. When we talked to them before the release of the 0.9 SDK, they said that "Android is a mobile OS unlike the iPhone system, which is really kind of a desktop OS." Because of Java, they lamented that it'll be hard for Instinctiv Shuffle to do any really heavy lifting without bogging the system down, so they didn't think they'll be able to make it "as personalized" as the admittedly outlawed iPhone version.
Access to hardware appears to be much better than with the iPhone SDK, even though BreadCrumbz's Amos Yoffe says that Android "doesn't let you access the hardware directly, you go through Java APIs which are abstracted from the hardware." He still says that it's "pretty good." TuneWiki devs raved that "Android doesn't sandbox you like Apple does, so you have more flexibility." Apps run in the background just fine, battery drain issues aside. And conversely to this freedom, security policies and threats should be interesting (and maybe terrifying for nail-biter types) to watch develop, though at the start, Android seems to strike a good balance between security and freedom (insert current events political joke here).
Flexibility is a huge thing for Android. One of its strongest points—that it's going to run on a ton of phones with a rainbow of specs—might also prove to be one of its weak points, and perhaps the biggest challenge for developers. TuneWiki's Sarig said that since the Dev challenge only provided them with a single set of specs, no one's had to deal with the issue yet. It's definitely looming, however.
He admits that they're going to "have to scale back for less powerful handsets," though he doesn't know to what extent, since no one's seen the pile-of-rusted-bolts end of the Android hardware scale. BreadCrumbz's Yoffe says that "it's a bit early to say" if performance variance between handsets will be an issue, no one will really know "until we get our hands on real Android hardware." The G1's hodgepodge of interface methods—touchscreen, QWERTY and trackball—perhaps not so coincidentally gives developers a chance to experiment with multiple ways to interact with their app using a single device, though having to account for them all necessarily adds layers of complexity and consideration to creating apps.
Android vs. iPhone: The Final Battle
Pandora CTO Tom Conrad, who famously said "I need Android like I need a hole in the head," actually takes a more measured approach to the platform war. He told us that "Generally, when I look at Android and the challenges we faced bringing Pandora to handsets," it doesn't seem to solve them. "It just adds another one to the mix."
Critical for Android's success is an easy-to-use app store and the killer apps to stock it. Conrad noted that while Pandora had been on a number of low-end phones for over two years, within 24 hours, their iPhone app had surpassed all of those users combined. They are currently taking a wait-and-see approach with Android, though he stressed that "absolutely, we want Pandora to be everywhere there are listeners." TuneWiki similarly wants to achieve multi-platform ubiquity, though they're much more juiced about both the iPhone and Android, saying, "We love them both."
Whoever wins, it looks like the carriers will lose. Every dev agreed that the iPhone sparked a revolution that is changing the way US carriers operate. Android is a part of that now, and the two, even locked in competition, will push that revolution further. In that sense, at least, we all win something.
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