Android is Sprint-ing ahead

Sprint hosts major mobile players at Open Developer's Conference in Santa Clara

Mobile “who’s who” – minus Apple

There are still many aspects of mobile software development which have not yet succumbed to the open source tractor-beam, but the content shared at this year’s Sprint Open Developer’s Conference made the point that open source certainly has a seat at the table.

The three day conference included presentations from many industry players including Sprint, HTC, Palm, Google, Research in Motion, Verisign, Motorola, Sun Microsystems, TeleNav, Intuit, Qualcomm, Acision, Alcatel-Lucent, OmniLink, Virgin Mobile, Boost and many others.

Sprint hosted the event and had a small army at the show. They made it very clear that they intend to work hard to support the developer community, open source and otherwise. The big message I heard was that Sprint means business — business services that is. Their network is optimized for business related applications such as messaging and location based services in addition to the core voice and high speed data services.

Of course they were also quick to remind attendees that their Simply Everything plans are a value for any subscriber. Sprint also introduced their 4G network which is being piloted presently in three small pockets in the Bay Area. Some lucky participants walked out of the show with a complimentary 4G USB modem. Sid from the Android Maker’s group was one of the lucky ones with the 4G modem — he seemed pretty pleased with the data rates.

WebOS makes impressive debut

Palm introduced their new WebOS with presentations led by their CTO Mitch Allen. Mitch was joined by Ben Galbraith and Dion Almaer who are long-time open source champions, and as of about one month ago, share the role of Director of Developer Relations at Palm. Despite being on board for only a month, they did a great job pitching the newly minted operating system, including a 45 minute keynote address.

Additional presentations on UI design and application architecture provided the attendees with a good introduction to WebOS. Palm Engineer Matt Hornyak shared the coding process that went into the Clock/Alarm application shipped with the Palm Pre.

HTC & Windows

HTC shared about their approach to the mobile device market. HTC is best known for its long line of Windows Mobile devices and has also been the primary force behind the available Android hardware to date. They will have to learn to share that responsibility with newcomers such as Motorola this fall as many new Android devices hit the market. HTC also reviewed their Touch Pro 2 Windows Mobile device which looks like a very capable for the die-hard Windows Mobile crowd.

To boost developer interest and enthusiasm, HTC also gave away about 500 Android-equipped Sprint Hero devices to developers who were quite happy to receive them — so eager in fact that about 300 developers waited in line for over an hour to get into the hands-on session that went late into the night. As an added bonus, the device includes 30 days of complimentary service from Sprint. Not bad if you can score one for yourself — though getting another device through airport security on the way home is always a chore.

Speaking of devices, RIM and Microsoft also gave some devices away to eager developers during their presentations. Microsoft gave a lively presentation around their application market to an audience of about 75 developers.

BlackBerry joining the web party

RIM made a presentation outlining both their network infrastructure options and their current and upcoming development tools. I observed two key items about RIM during the show.

First, RIM has embraced the Eclipse development environment with a very viable plug-in offering. Now my Eclipse environment is setup for BlackBerry, Android and WebOS development. If only Apple supported Windows or BlackBerry supported MacOS I could have brought only a single laptop with me to the show. As it was, I was probably the only geek there with both a Dell and a MacBook. Yes, my back-pack was very heavy, but my chiropractor is quite pleased with the arrangement.

Secondly, it appears that RIM is attempting to make up ground in the “web applications” area. They reviewed some new tools which are available for 5.0 devices which allow developers to create applications in JavaScript, HTML and CSS. They have a tool which auto-magically converts the JavaScript, HTML and CSS into a native application package (i.e. a cod file).

For those keeping tabs on the mobile development world — this seems to be the latest craze and RIM has caught the fever. I must admit that I have enjoyed the power of using HTML/CSS for layout in a recent WebOS project and I missed it when jumping back over to Android.

It will be interesting to see how this move plays out for RIM. Their big challenge is going to continue to be device fragmentation. They have many capable devices but picking the right SDK level and targeting the proper platform takes some intentional thought on the part of the developer — and perhaps some luck — to get it right. Fortunately, RIM’s developer support team is very knowledgeable and eager to help.

RIM’s hands-on session included building a multi-media player and a very cool, though simplistic GPS application which calculates the distance between your current location and a point of interest as described by Latitude and Longitude. The application also draws a “compass” arrow indicating the direction to the desired destination. The application was built entirely within Eclipse, including the secure api signing process required by RIM — I was able to copy three files from my BlackBerry JDE setup into the Eclipse environment and the application signing process worked without a hitch. Once the application was signed, I was able to get the app installed to my BlackBerry Bold.

The Eclair has landed

I was wrapping my head around the fact that BlackBerry was jumping into the whole “web development model for mobile” game and I was contemplating picking up a book on Javascript applications. However, before I could pick out a title from Amazon things got a little more exciting. News started to spread throughout the conference that Google had just released the Android 2.0 SDK. You could almost feel the bandwidth leaving the room as everyone started to hit the web to learn more and to download the SDK. I tried to sync the eclair repo but alas, the source was not posted yet. Of interest is that the most recent release of the Android SDK — version 1.6, or “Donut” — was unveiled just a month ago in September. Though fast-paced innovation is remarkable, a more predictable release schedule would be nice for those trying to plan product releases.

Though the Android team was clearly aware of the timing of the 2.0 release (it had mention in a couple of slides), there was not a significant amount of 2.0 related content shared at the show. Android team members presented sessions on the application marketplace, supporting multiple device resolutions, and application interface tuning. The application tuning presentation was arguably the most valuable material presented at the show for Android developers as it really went behind the curtain and demonstrated some very cool tools available in the Android SDK. The presentation wasn’t flashy — just good coder nuggets.

Wrapping up

The mobile scene is heating up with new devices, new development methods and increased exposure and commitment on the part of the carriers. Mobile is an exciting place to be — however the nagging question remains for many — how to monetize mobile? App Stores alone are not the answer except for the few fortunate enough to sit a top the noise, even if it is for only 15 minutes of app-store fame. Speaking of App Stores — what would a mobile discussion be like without a comment about iPhone?

iPhone did receive some attention at the show — primarily as a benchmark for comparison by other platforms. In particular, iPhone was recognized as a key turning point in the mobile web thanks to the powerful WebKit-powered Mobile Safari browser enabling rich web content. This same browser now resides in Android and Palm’s WebOS.

Today iPhone has a solid lead in the mobile web client stats with their millions and millions of devices. Look for Android to take a bite out of Apple’s lead in this area over the next 12-18 months.

Google is serious about their software. HTC, Motorola and others are serious about their devices. T-Mobile, Sprint and now Verizon (among others) are serious about bringing Android to their networks. Android is coming and looking to grab market-share. And to be sure, none of the other players are going to roll over and give it to them.

Can iPhone remain the king of smartphones? Will WebOS win back the Palm faithful? And what will 20+ Android phones on the market mean for the platform? It is going to be an interesting year. I’m looking forward to next year’s conference to see which players are left standing and in what positions.

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