Android developers flock to warts-and-all Pro-Am

It’s only been a few weeks since Google opened up the Android Market to commercial Australian smartphone developers but interest in the runaway platform is already running at fever pitch if this week’s oversubscribed Android Australia Pro-Am (Twitter feed here) is any indication.

Despite an estimated initial attendance of around 40 people nearly 100 interested users and developers converged on the Melbourne-CBD office of iPhone iPad and Android developers jTribe Mobile Services whose 20-plus applications include Australian Curriculum FirePin4 Treasure Hunt and more.

It wasn’t the first time the group had held a developer seminar but it was the largest says jTribe developer Nick Burton an RMIT University graduate student who founded user group Android Australia. (not to be mistaken with the news site also called Android Australia) “We’ve been doing this for 18 months but this is definitely by far our biggest” Burton says. “I’m interestesd in Android development and I started the group because there wasn’t one; with more people involved it will hopefully grow – and our jobs as developers will hopefully get better.”

Google’s lack of support for Australian developers had galled local developers since Android’s local launch last year but Google finally resolved that situation in October by allowing Australians to register as Google Checkout merchants (previously Australian developers were only able to offer free apps). This opened the floodgates for developers to begin selling applications – and in the process to turn Android development into a commercial pursuit just as iPhone programming has become.

Getting it out there. jTribe director Daniel Bradby was one of three presenters on the night delivering a keynote on Android development and hosting one of three lightning talks that were each run three times round-robin style so attendees could hear each speaker before the night was up. Bradby relayed the experience of submitting and tracking the group’s applications through the Android Market – an experience that he said has had its ups and downs.

“The cool thing about the Marketplace is that we can put an app out there and if it’s connected to a back-end service we have seen that people are using it within 30 seconds of our putting it out into the marketplace” he said. “With our [FirePin 4] trip tracking app we saw [anonymously] that people were recording their trips within three minutes of downloading it. It’s really really exciting.”

jTribe director Daniel Bradby discussed the company’s experiences selling software on the Android Market which was opened to Australian developers in October.

The ease with which developers can post updates to the Android Market should help improve overall quality by removing the obstacles – such as the weeks-long wait for approval in Apple’s App Store – that prevent developers from fixing bugs as quickly as possible. “There’s this idea that a curated app marketplace like the App Store is producing better quality” Bradby said “but I think that’s not the case. I think if developers realise they can turn around a bug fix straight away they’ll be more motivated to do it. I certainly find myself doing more updates on Android than on our iPhone apps.”

Also motivating jTribe’s app commercialisation efforts has been a variety of developer tools provided by Google. These tools available through the Google Market Developer Console include a range of analytics that measure utilisation of apps and allow developers to target their marketing to particular regions. They also include a bug tracker that aggregates the number of reported problems helping jTribe focus its efforts on fixing particular parts of its apps.

There are still issues however: Android’s ‘skins’ have proved problematic and one attendee’s question about piracy – “is that the other side of the open platform?” eliciting a knowing nod from Bradby. Google was slowly getting better with innovations such as the Google Market licensing server he said but the August revelation that a hacker had broken its security showed the software giant still had a lot of work to do.

Graphics tribulations. Also speaking at the event was Matthew Clark of mobile development house The Voxel Agents whose iPhone game Train Conductor U.S.A. has proved hugely popular on the Apple App Store but presented its share of challenges when being adapted for Android.

Clark who previously worked on Nintendo Wii games with Brisbane development house Pandemic Studios pointed out a number of idiosyncrasies with Android’s OpenGL-based graphics subsystem many related to the wide variety of underlying hardware configurations in different Android devices.

The Voxel Agents’ Matthew Clark (at right with iPad) ran through differences between the graphics subsystems on the iPhone and Android.

For example the lack of hardware-based texture compression – present in the iPhone but absent in many Android devices – means that a 1024-by-1024 texture that could be compressed to around 500KB would take up to 4MB of memory. “If you’re looking at having several textures in your game that’s a lot of memory you’re dedicating just to texture space” says Clark.

The lack of an alpha channel in some phones’ graphic subsystems affects use of transparency he added while phone-to-phone variations in elements such as maximum resolution aspect ratio and even compiler settings all make for potential headaches for developers. So too is the emulator built into the Android Native Development Kit (NDK) which – unlike the iPhone SDK’s phone simulator – makes game testing quite tricky given that it struggles to get more than one or two frames per second.

Dual-platform strategy. Rounding out the speakers at the event was Scott Weston an ex-Google employee and developer who now has 14 apps available on the Android Market including the popular Sketch-A-Etch and Speak and Spell. Weston who worked on Android in its early days shared his thoughts on things such as ChromeOS versus Android and Google’s hosted app strategy.

Android developer and ex-Google employee Scott Weston opened up about ChromeOS battery life and the direction of Google’s platform strategy.

Weston admitted he was a one-time sceptic about ChromeOS but had come to see the logic behind Google’s decision to push the operating system for netbooks while pushing Android on mobile devices. “I personally was of the argument ‘why not put Android on the netbooks and have just one platform but I was convinced” he explains. “There are two use cases: the way ChromeOS works is very Web centric to the point where things like device drivers are just a native-code Web page. This is a very different mindset which can be more powerful than a phone and lets you quickly get very powerful capabilities that you wouldn’t be able to have on phones.”

Google’s cloud strategy however would help bridge the gap between the two platforms with complex processing tasks intelligently farmed out to cloud-computing facilities to increase responsiveness and extend the battery life of mobile devices. The voice-recognition capabilities of Google’s iPhone search application for example transmit spoken search commands to a back-end speech processing environment then return the results to the device.

“Your phone is just the conduit” says Weston. “This architecture opens up some pretty interesting applications. If these phones were trying to process voice I think they’d go flat. We don’t know what’s going to come in the future but if we push things to the cloud and offload the CPU processing to the phone in theory we could make the batteries go longer. Games are a special case because you’re generally not doing anything else – but if people are smart they’ll write to HTML5 and run them on all phones and all platforms and from the cloud as well.”

Android Australia hosts user forums and regular educational events around Android. Visit Android Australia for more info.