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Rory Cellan-Jones

Making apps for Android

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 12 Mar 09, 09:15 GMT

Is Android (Google's open operating system for mobile phones) finally stirring from its torpor and becoming a force to challenge Apple's App Store in the world of mobile applications?

I ask after spending a morning with a group of keen Android developers, who were enthusiastic about the potential of Google's open source operating system. No wonder, really, as they'd been invited along by T-Mobile, which has been heavily promoting the only Android phone on sale so far, the G1.

But they had some impressive stuff to show off. Most eye-catching was Wikitude, described by its creators as the first "augmented-reality" application.

Wikitude

It uses an Android phone's GPS and compass capabilities to map information about places of interest. The clever thing, though, is that as well as seeing the information plotted on a map you can turn on the phone's camera, point it at a building and see information on the screen.

Mobilizy, the firm behind Wikitude, is now launching another app called Zenith, which takes the same idea into the skies. You point your camera at the night sky - and get a star map.

Two other applications were more mundane. A company called Skycoders has developed Cabs4Me - again, it's a location-based service, enabling you to find a local cab service in a hurry. It has apparently been downloaded 56,000 times.

Then there is the Telegraph's mobile news service, developed by Mike Jennings - poached from Google where he was an Android developer. It apparently has 36,000 active Android users, checking out much of the paper's content - and it has also put the same app on the iPhone.

What all the developers had in common was enthusiasm about the process of producing Android applications in comparison with working on something for Apple's App Store. "Apple has an approval process which can take days or weeks - with Android you decide when it goes live," explained one. "It took us four times as long to get the app onto iTunes as to get it onto Android," said another.

With Microsoft and Nokia also now opening application stores, Apple may find it needs to streamline its process to keep developers on board. I notice that Microsoft is boasting that its Windows Marketplace will offer a "simple and transparent publishing policy."

But what the developers at the T-Mobile forum also shared, as far as I could see, was uncertainty about whether the whole game was worth the candle - in other words, is there any money in it?

From today, Android's Market will feature paid apps - so alongside the free stuff will be games like Guitar Hero. But these will generally be the work of big developers, who may in any case see this sort of work as a marketing tool rather than a profit centre.

When I asked about revenue, the Telegraph team told me that their app is sponsored - and leads users to videos with pre-roll ads. But sponsorship can come and go, and I wonder how much revenue those adverts generate?

Still, for a business like the Telegraph, it can't be too expensive to reprocess all that content and make it available to a growing crowd of mobile readers.

The Cabs4me firm hoped to make revenue from mini-cab firms, and the Wikitude people were looking at the possibility of selling location-based advertising - which conjures up the terrifying prospect of burger chain ads posted on a virtual Taj Mahal. But everyone at the forum admitted these were early days - and that many small developers may struggle to get their applications heard above all the noise. "It's like the early days of the dot com boom all over again." said one. "Everyone's trying stuff out, but nobody is quite sure what will work."

But the clear winners from the battle between Android and Apple, Nokia and Windows, are the consumers. If, that is, you have a hunger to do anything with your phone but make a simple call.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    I wish I had known about the event yesterday, I would have loved to have gone along.

    I've had a G1 since day 1 back in October, and have found that as a device to develop for, it's a lot more accessible than anything before it from Nokia or Sony Ericsson.

    The documentation is very clear and open and the community in very helpful.

    Because of that I even decided to launch my own Android development site (http://learningandroid.org) to try and help grow the community more, and the feedback from everyone has been really positive.


  • Comment number 2.

    Android, Mmmmmm, let's see what happens when they turn it into a full blown operating system for PCs. Then we'll have something to bleat about. Maybe those Linux boys'll finally see some of their dreams realised (that's if they can get the damn thing working with USB modems)

  • Comment number 3.

    I think Android is incredibly exciting, it will be great when a few more phones come along.

    The guys at xda-developers are currently working on a version for my HTC phone.

    One thing I am not too sure about though is this...is there a possibility for compatibility issues with the apps store. I mean what if you buy a piece of software for your phone and realize that it needs gps to work probably.

    Surely this is going to be a liability of having the OS running on many different phones

    Most tech savy people wouldn't have this problem but what if my granny gets one...she wouldn't have a clue.

    This is one of the few things that Apple has got going for it, a lack of variety.

  • Comment number 4.

    Microsoft's "simple and transparent publishing policy" involves a simple $99 annual fee and a transparent $99 fee for every app, while still taking 30% of the selling price (the same as Apple or Google).
    So a $1 app has to sell 283 copies to make a profit...

  • Comment number 5.

    I don't see that apps going live on Android immediately is a good thing at all. The Apple approval process is there for a reason, so that we, as users, know that when we download an app, it has been tested and will be reliable.

    Putting an app on Android, not tested or approved, the users really don't know what they're getting.

  • Comment number 6.

    I have to agree with ringsting-iom that there is a very big risk of fragmentation in the market like we have already seen with the various distributions of Linux.

    We're already seeing it with the differences between RC33 (the current US release) and RC9 (the UK release) where here, we don't have Latitude - unless you root the phone - and voice search.

    Hopefully this will only be a temporary issue while the OS is still very young.

    And on the Mac front, there is some fragmentation between iPhone and the iPod touch which lacks GPS, the camera and an external microphone - I know some people have already been caught out by this and unlike Google which has a 24 hour refund policy, Apple don't!

  • Comment number 7.

    The biggest incentive for developers to work on the Android platform isn't the ease of development - iPhone/Objective C isn't the worst thing in the world and if you really want to learn it you can do so fairly easily. Rather it is the delivery platform.

    Apple's walled garden App Store will eventually hurt them because developers don't want to go through hoops in order to please Apple. Just as Apple doesn't want to go through hoops to please operators, everyone wants freedom.

    Applications such as the one mentioned in this blog post can be made for the iPhone, as for whether it would be allowed to be distributed through the App Store is another matter, so why would any developer want to go down the route of spending time, effort and money on something which may not see the light of day because Apple doesn't want it on their storefront.

    At present the only thing stopping Android from getting the column inches the iPhone gets is the look of Android devices, but of course this can (and hopefully will) change.

    Google has shown that it doesn't have to be the first to the market in order to become the most popular or the best (Search and gMail automatically springs to mind).

  • Comment number 8.

    Rory,
    There already is a star map application for Android: it's called Sky Map. It's free, will remain so, and it's been on the Android Market since November.

    John Taylor

  • Comment number 9.

    Is there any money in it? That is the big question.

    There are a lot of developers on both the iPhone platform and the Android platform who develop apps in their spare time. We all dream of being the guy who creates the next big thing in their bedroom and becomes a millionaire overnight. But most people understand that this is unlikely to happen and are happy to release their apps for free or for a small charge.

    You can see the sales stats for my iPhone app here.

    As you can tell I'm not about to retire.

    Then there are the ones who see this as the next big gold rush. I've started to hear all the same explanations that were given during the dot com boom as to why there's money to be made - the classic one "There's over 5 million people with iPhones in the US, I just need to get 1% of those people to buy my app and I'll be rich." or on Android "It's a small market at the moment, so I'm not making much money. Once more operators release Android phones the market is going to explode. I'll have first mover advantage and then I'll be rich".

    People and businesses need a to be a bit more realistic about the market conditions and what they are likely to achieve. There's a good post here from someone who actually invested money and hired people to make his app for him. $32,000 at the moment it doesn't look like he's going to see very much of that back.

    Chris.

  • Comment number 10.

    #9: I used to work with some mobile application developers, they always had high hopes, but as far as I know they haven't made any money. TBH, I can't see them making any money in the near future.

    Their main income was from writing mobile applications for companies and not from direct sales.

    I wouldn't invest any money or time into mobile applications just yet. It could be a good hobby, but nothing more.

    #2: Android is basically a Java machine running on top of a Linux kernel. Why would you want to have an OS consisting of nothing but Java? Android for PC doesn't make sense, I wouldn't use it.

    There is already an X server, display managers, etc for GNU/Linux. I mean, the Linux world is miles ahead of Android. Besides, my understanding is that the business model of Android is not compatible with the objectives of GNU/Linux.

    Android for PC will not happen.

  • Comment number 11.

    #10
    What do you mean, the objectives of GNU/Linux?
    Redhat sells copies of GNU/Linux in full compliance and endorsement of the GPL of which Linux is licensed.
    Don’t muddle the terms commercial (which is fine) with proprietary (which is not).

  • Comment number 12.

    Smartphones are becoming more and more advanced, doesn't this just allow script kiddies to start developing viruses targeting them? Our mobile phone now contain a vast amount of personal data, sometimes more than our computers.

    I think software companies should start developing antivirus software, for mobile phones, I realize that they won't given that viruses don't currently exist, although it's just a case of when in my opinion.

  • Comment number 13.

    Android is truly a revolution and more and more companies developing useful & interesting applications for the platform.
    as david suggested i am not sure if antivirus or cleaning software required for this platform.

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