SAN FRANCISCO—Consumers aren’t the only people whom Google and Apple are fighting over. As Vic Gundotra, Google's senior vice president of Social, said on Tuesday, the two companies are in "a battle for the hearts and minds of developers" as well.
Gundotra was speaking at Google I/O, an annual two-day conference here for software developers who come from far and wide to geek out on Google's operating systems—especially Android, which according to ComScore now leads Research in Motion's BlackBerry and Apple's iOS in U.S. market share for smartphones, at 34.7 percent.
Though most companies make applications for both Android and the iPhone, developers here had strong feelings about what differentiates the two in terms of programming. Ultimately, some say, those differences could determine which of the two companies wins out. And Google is optimistic: During Gundotra’s portion of the morning’s keynote address, there was a large slide of the Android mascot happily eating an apple.
To developers, Apple’s big advantage is that their iPhone offers a single, standardized platform on which to develop. You create one app, and it works the same for everyone. By contrast, there are multiple versions of the Android operating system out there, and the OS is spread across 215 devices made by 36 different manufacturers, which means that an application often shows up differently on most phones. That means a lot more work for developers.
"Android is fractured as a platform," said Joey Sommer, the "Lead Rockstar Developer" (official title) at Zynga, which develops games for social networks. "It makes it a challenge to stabilize those UI [user interface] components. It’s just harder."
Dat Nguyen, a developer working for the City of Portland, Ore., also spoke to these challenges: "Just doing an app for the city, for Android, we had to enlist citizens to test the apps for us." Eventually, he said, Portland had to select some Android devices that wouldn’t have access to the application.
"I think this is a really significant point," Sommers added. "Because look of the old days of Windows—all the device drivers, and all the different PCs, and all the different stuff…It's pretty much the same thing."
Then again, Android makes it a lot easier for developers to put their products on the market. Unlike Apple, which carefully shepherds every application to its App Store, and which approves or denies every app sold, Android lets developers go to its Market almost immediately. "[Developers] love that you can post your app to the Market and you don’t feel like you have big brother there vetting your app out," said Peggy MacDonald, the project manager at Critical Path, an eBay company. "It's in the Market minutes after you post it."
"With Android, you can release what you want to release, do what you want to do," Steve Martocci, a co-founder of GroupMe, the group text messaging application, said. "You're not restricted."
The developers here also said that Android's programming language is far easier than Apple's. Geoff Hackett and Michael Novak, Android-focused software engineers at GroupMe, also pointed out that for a service as simple as text messaging, the differences brought on by Android’s fracturing are negligible. (That isn't true for more complex programs, like Netflix, which is on iOS but has only just begun to be released for Android phones, and even then only in a severely limited way.) They even argued that Apple's best selling point for developers, the single device, was actually a downside for consumers.
"If you don’t like the iPhone, you can't go get another Apple phone," Novak said. "If you don't like your Android phone, you can just go and get another phone."
But Android's biggest selling point may ultimately be that it goes beyond mobile. During Tuesday morning's keynote, Android executives presented Android @ Home, which will allow users to control household appliances with their phones.
"Android is going to be where you eat, sleep, and shit," Novak said. "You want to make your refrigerator open with your phone? You could do that. That’s why it's going to be the big winner. Forget phones, forget tablets, forget computers. They're going to be everywhere—controllers for everything else around you."
Here too, Android's openness is seen as an advantage in that battle for the hearts and minds of developers. "They said, 'Here's a great platform to build on; go build stuff,'" Novak said of Android @ Home. "They're letting other people do a lot of the legwork for them."
So, will Android be the dominant operating system in the future? "It's going to be where you eat, sleep, and shit," Novak reiterated. "Exactly," said Hackett.