INTERVIEW: Google Android expert Dan Morrill spills all

The first Android phone sounds rather like the iPhone: it’s coming in the second half of the year and it won’t be able to cut and paste without outside assistance. APC gets the lowdown from Google developer advocate and Android expert Dan Morrill who denies any plans to copy Apple deflates the biggest Android myths and explains why web apps won’t always cut it on phones.

APC: Eight months into Android’s public life what have been the major achievements so far and what still needs to get done?

Dan Morrill: We initially announced the operating platform on November 5 and a week later we released what we’re calling an early look at the SDK and in a certain sense that was a momentous moment when it was made available for developers to start using. What struck me as the first major milestone was maybe four weeks or so after we first released the SDK when we’d had over 8000 developers subscribe to our mailing list. That’s not Google’s largest developer community but it’s one of the largest. It’s certainly in the top 5 and this for a platform where devices aren’t available yet.

We’re in a situation right now where we’re focused very strongly on getting the first device out the door and the reason for that is we want to make sure the first device that ends up in consumers’ hands basically is a good device. We want to set the bar with it. We don’t want to just release the stuff and say “Here’s a platform that’s capable of this huge list of functionalities” and then the first device doesn’t really take advantage of it; that doesn’t tell your story well.

So really what we want to do is make sure that the first device is very high quality is really compelling to users and that is and it has to be the foundation for everything else we do. So right now our engineers are purely focused on that. We’ve got a few other things that we started doing. We’re not in the early stages of organising how the open source release process is going to go so we’re starting to answer some of the administrative details of the product.

APC: So when will that happen?

DM: People always ask this question. We’ve said all along that we expect the devices to be out in the second half of 2008 and we’re still on track for that.

APC: As you’ve hinted some developers weren’t convinced that the open source approach within Android was actually open enough. Is that still an issue?

DM: I’m sure that the developers and other people who were concerned about that at the beginning are still concerned about it. I don’t expect that they’ve changed their mind. It’s obviously very unfortunate that we haven’t been able to release the source code. But like I’ve said we’ve wanted to make sure that the first devices are out there and really high quality and it’s a surprising amount of work to release that much source code. I’m sure that people have some very legitimate concerns about that and our policy has been and still is that in an ideal world the source code would be out there but just from the practical considerations of trying to get a platform out there we’re making priorities and unfortunately that’s our current priority.

APC: Developers care about these issues but does the average consumer even know what’s running on their phone?

DM: That’s an excellent point. I think historically there hasn’t been a lot of consumer awareness of what specific software is on their phone. Obviously in the power user set in some subset of mainstream certainly they’re aware of that and they’ll actively seek it out. But one thing that honestly Apple has done extremely well is reach the consumer and establish consumer awareness. So that’s obviously worked very well for them and it’s something that we also hope in a certain sense to achieve.

But at the end of the day really what we want to do is focus on the user experience more than trying explicitly to focus on awareness. We figure that we’ll get the device out there it’ll be really high quality users will say “Wow I can do so much with this I really love this device” and make the effort to find out what’s running on it.

APC: Apple would obviously claim to have that user experience crown currently. Is there anything that Google’s consciously taken from the iPhone design?

DM: Obviously Apple has made a great device and it’s been very successful for them The interesting thing about this is that whether it’s iPhone or Android or Symbian or Linux Mobile — there’s a lot of different operating systems out there — they’ve all had sort of the same gestational period these have all been in development in parallel. I think each of them in general is taking an approach that works well for them and that’s certainly what we’re trying to do All we’re focused on is making sure that our user interface is very accessible and very easy to use. We’ll know we’ve achieved that when we start getting reviews.

APC: Will it have a copy and paste function in it? (The original iPhone doesn’t!)

DM: Ummm that’s a good question and I’m not sure that I know the answer. (APC thinks: Bet that means it doesn’t.)

APC: Will developers want to make the effort to build Android-specific applications or will they prefer to develop something for the web that works for a variety of platforms and devices?

DM: We have a sub-project for Gears for mobile and in fact one thing that we really want to make sure that we don’t lose sight of as a company is developer choice. Google has done very well in a lot of ways by being able to build on top of open source software. We had a choice of what kind of software we used and we were able to choose without being beholden to other platform providers how we built our own infrastructure. We are definitely well aware of that.

The last thing that we want to do is lock developers into a particular way of building apps. It’s certainly true that for a lot of developers the right thing to do would be to build a mobile-optimised web application using browser style Ajax semantics and deploy that on devices. That’s a developer choice that we’re really not interested in trying to shut out.

So that’s why in fact we’ve been demonstrating that we have a full browser on the device. But for quite a few applications we think that developers will find that rich experience by using the Dalvik runtime. A good example is background processing. If you’re building an enterprise-style synchronisation framework for push mail or something like that for a particular solution you really need background processing. That’s something that an Ajax-style application isn’t going to allow you to do because once the user closes the browser that’s it you can’t do any more processing. So there are some things that will inevitably always be more easily done or provide a richer user experience using the Java APIs and the Dalvik runtime on Android. [APC: this is a distinctly different approach to multitasking than the iPhone — Apple is banning developers from doing multitasking on the premise that it chews up battery life. Instead Apple is asking app developers to run internet services that send an alert to the iPhone — via Apple servers — which prompts the user to open the app that needs attention.]

APC: Finally what’s the most common misconception about Android?

DM: I think the most common misconception about Android is that Google has some grand master plan for what we’re going to try and do. I’ll see things like — and this still keeps coming up even though we’ve never ever at any time said this — “Google is going to produce Android and give it to mobile operators in exchange for ads on phones”. That’s completely not true and we’ve never said that. In fact the Android engineering team is completely separate from all the rest of the engineering teams. Of course the ad team is aware of Android and is perfectly free to build some kind of a solution for Android but it’s certainly not part of our strategy per se for Android.