Understanding The Obstacles
Apple’s iPad, a major competitor to larger screen gadgets hitting store shelves with Android baked in, will run all of the iPhone’s 140,000-plus apps, as well as many more being developed specifically for the 9.7-inch multitouch display. Unfortunately, Google doesn’t allow all Android-powered gadgets to access the Android Market, restricting these apps to certain approved devices. “When we asked Google if we could [put Android Market on the Entourage Edge], they said, ‘No, Android is a phone operating system and we work with phone companies,’” said Doug Atkinson, vice president of business development for Entourage Systems.
Though the code is open source, not all of the apps are. Google reserves some key apps, such as Google Voice, Maps, and the Android Market portal, to devices that pass its Compatibility Test Suite. According to Google, manufacturers may submit their products to this testing, which they created for handset manufacturers. “This tests devices on a range of factors to ensure they are compatible with the Android platform, and only those that pass this test will be allowed access to the Market,” reported a Google spokesperson. Though Google wouldn’t reveal the criteria on this list, Archos’ director of marketing, Frederic Balay, said that two reasons the Archos 5 didn’t pass was the absence of a camera and its inability to vibrate.
Dell, whose Android-powered Mini 5 tablet phone will have full access to the Android Market, recognizes that imposing strict guidelines on manufacturers for what is supposed to be an open OS has the appearance of sending mixed signals. “Google is trying to walk a line between being closed and open. And there’s a lot of conflict within Google,” said Neeraj Choubey, general manager of tablets within Dell’s Communications Solutions Group. “What Google has done is really focus on making sure that the applications that are in the marketplace require that there’s some least common denominator in hardware support. So the user doesn’t download an app and find out that it doesn’t work. You don’t want to punish the user.”
Google told us that the OS was “designed from the beginning to scale . . . upward to MID and netbook-style devices,” yet the search giant doesn’t seem interested in offering the same level of functionality or user experience Android phones enjoy. According to Rob Enderle, principal analyst for the Enderle Group, this is because Google wants these devices to run Chrome OS, which is designed specifically for netbooks (and presumably tablets), but won’t hit the market until the end of the year. “It’s not about the limitations of Android,” Enderle says, “but about Google’s willingness to support and promote such devices.”
Manufacturers have tried to make up for the loss of Android Market support by including a set of compatible apps with their own gadgets, by creating their own app markets, or by offering access to third-party Android app stores, such as AndAppStore. Such repositories, however, have to go through the same struggle the Android Market did in its early days: building up their number and variety of apps.
But there’s still hope for non-smart phone Android devices. DataViz, the company behind the popular office Documents To Go, didn’t have to put in any extra development time to make its app work for devices as small as the 3.2-inch G1 or as big as the 10.1-inch Entourage Edge. Ilya Eliashevsky, DataViz’s Android product manager, compared the experience to how users expect Microsoft Office to work on a PC. “Computers have all sorts of screen resolutions and monitor sizes, and Office just works. If you have a larger screen you can see more cells and columns.”
Nevertheless, software developers still need to devote some resources to rolling out and supporting supersized versions of their apps. And at least for now, tablet and smartbook makers are being called on to fill the void. Archos’ app market, AppsLib, grew from just 800 apps in November of 2009 to more than 1,500 in February of this year. The company says it’s adding 20 to 30 apps per day, and they’ve checked around 800 for quality control to ensure they work properly with the tablet. Still, this number pales in comparison to the 16,000+ programs available to Android phone owners.