Google's unhappy Android developers

Controversy around its SDK, rumors of a Symbian tie-up, and the iPhone's star power call the mobile OS into question

For a long time, Google has led a largely blissful existence, fostering a widespread perception -- sometimes in direct contradiction to the facts -- that it can do no wrong. Yet the company's controversial Android mobile platform venture threatens to seriously dent this notion, at least with some of the people it needs most.

As it readies its long-anticipated open mobile OS for public release, Google is behaving in a way that threatens to permanently taint its relationship with many Android developers. The company's actions -- including restricting access to key development tools and allegedly treading on open source principles -- have created, if not a full-fledged revolt, at least a sense of disappointment and disillusionment among many in the tightly knit Android development community, which numbers perhaps 2,000, according to an estimate by AndroidGuys, an independent Android blog site. Some developers have threatened to shift their attention to other mobile platforms.

Mike Novak, a New York-based independent Android developer, says Google may be guilty of taking its developer base for granted. "Developers are the driving force behind Android applications, so without them it would be very hard for Android to have a stance in the market," he says.

Casey Borders, an independent Android developer in Columbus, Ohio, warns that Google will have to work hard to retain developer loyalty and attract new developers to its platform. "The Android platform has a very strong base and a lot of potential, but it also has a lot of competition," he warns.

The Android SDK controversy

At the heart of the developers' discontent is the status of the Android Software Developers Kit (SDK). In July, Google announced that the latest SDK would be released first to the 50 winners of its Android Developer Challenge (ADC), a US$10 million contest that the company is using to find the best and most innovative Android applications -- "cool apps that surprise and delight mobile users," as Google says on its ADC Web page.

While many developers cried foul, Google claims its SDK decision was designed to help the development community. "The ADC finalists are helping us update the latest version of the SDK before we release it to the world in the coming weeks," the company said in an e-mailed statement. "We wanted to limit the challenges developers face with an early release in a particularly critical time during the challenge to not disadvantage them. We've separated the scheduled releases to not disadvantage these winners who are competing for money and the public will receive a release of the SDK soon with more documentation and tools."

But the news that Google was reserving its latest and best development tools for a handpicked group, as well as failing to announce a firm date for the SDK's general release, hasn't gone down well with many developers.

For many in the closely linked "Androidsphere," Google's announcement seemed to come out of nowhere, stinging keenly and contradicting the company's vaunted developer-friendly reputation. Borders believes that Google's decision violated an open source guiding principle. "The idea with open source software is to allow early adopters access to the buggier pieces of code so they can help fix them or let people who want to wait for a solid release the ability to do that," he says. "The key is choice, and Google has taken away that choice and is developing Android like every other piece of closed software."

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John Edwards

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