Envisioning the Android User Experience: Customizable to the Max
Nov 16, 2007 4:00 AM PT
Just a few days have passed since the release of the Android software development kit (SDK), but already developers are knee-deep in application projects for the new cell phone platform.
Perhaps spurred by the added motivation of Google's US$10 million developer's challenge, a full 3,000 developers had joined Google's Android Developers Discussion Group within just two days of the SDK's release; by Thursday, more than 3,000 messages had been posted in the forum.
Now that the nitty-gritty details of the SDK are becoming known, developers are starting to get some sense of what the platform could mean in terms of the actual products it spawns -- in other words, just what, exactly, Android phones might look like.
Focus on Customization
Announced last Monday, the Open Handset Alliance's Android is a complete mobile platform built on the Linux 2.6 kernel that offers a robust operating system, libraries, a rich multimedia user interface and a complete set of phone applications. It also includes the Dalvik virtual machine to maximize application performance, portability and security.
One of the most notable characteristics of Android phones will be the ease with which they can be customized, an independent software developer at androidhackers.net known as "TheOne" told TechNewsWorld.
"Google has provided basic yet powerful tools for developers, so the user experience would be very customizable, unlike today's phones -- including the iPhone," TheOne explained. "Novice phone users should be able to download and install what they like, effortlessly."
Have It Your Way
Indeed, the openness of the platform will create a phone that can be made unique for each particular user, added David Somner, director of software development for BlueKey Wireless Systems.
"I can easily foresee several thousand programs being developed just for changing the look, feel and layout of the screen, customizing the fonts that people use, using custom images and sounds for everything," Somner told TechNewsWorld. "In the end, every user's handset can be totally customized just for that one user with no restrictions."
Such a degree of customization is more or less unheard of so far, Somner added, but the popularity of user-added external customizations for cell phones in the Asian marketplace shows that "if given unlimited choices, the market is unreal and beyond 'huge' -- it is THE market to be in, with trillions to be made."
Customization will be possible at the carrier level, the device level and the user level, Chris Hazelton, senior analyst for mobile device technology and trends with IDC, told TechNewsWorld.
To Each His or Her Own
"Gphones will be very different from each other," Hazelton noted.
"At the top level, there will be some carrier vendor branding and device branding, but there will also be the ability to customize the look and feel for the user," he explained. "It will be analogous to looking at one person's desktop versus that of another person."
HTC plans to release the first phone based on Android next year, and rumors suggest that a touch screen, QWERTY keyboard, 3G, GPS (Global Positioning System), WiFi and 3-D graphics will be among its features, TheOne said.
"Internals of the libraries suggest it will also support features like accelerometers, like the ones in the iPhone," TheOne added.
Touch and QWERTY
Touch and QWERTY are both supported by Android, Hazelton agreed, and will be among the features vendors can use to differentiate their offerings. "There will be full QWERTY, voice-centric keyboards and rich multimedia experience, but it will all be Android and all tied to the mobile Web," he explained.
Also among Android phones' features will likely be full GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) quad-band compatibility, EDGE (Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution), HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access), EVDO (Evolution-Data Optimized), WiFi a/b/g, WiMax, Bluetooth, SD memory card port, USB (Universal Serial Bus) port, an external expansion port for hardware appliances and accessories, full audio and video playback capabilities including MP3, MP4, DivX, Xvid, AVI (Audio Video Interleave), MKV, OGG, ACC, codec support with landscape and portrait playback, and orientation sensors, Somner predicted.
Location-based services will be one popular example of Web 2.0 and social applications that Android will increasingly bring to phones, TheOne added.
Android vs. iPhone
How will Android phones compare with Apple's iPhone?
"The iPhone will likely remain a niche product," TheOne predicted. "Android phones will likely be much cheaper because Google is giving it away for free."
Indeed, freedom promises to be a defining feature of Android devices, Somner agreed.
"Applications will not be required to be signed by Apple and only appear in places like Apple's iTunes Store, and people will not be held at the mercy of Apple in order to install and run applications on their Android phones," he said.
Overall, then, the user experience on Android phones may be similar to what many people currently experience on high-end smartphones available today, but "the difference, we hope, is that users will no longer be tied down by the carriers locking down handset features, and moving away from requiring signed applications of any kind, giving developers full range to truly develop any application they want, and giving users the real choice of being unlimited with what they can install and use on their cell phones," he explained.
'One Big Bet'
Of course, it is still early, and much remains to be seen.
"In the end, if the carriers and phone manufacturers do not support what Google is touting, then anything that developers are doing is moot and a total waste of time," Somner pointed out. "So we cross our fingers and hope for total open access on everything when the manufactured Android phones hit the streets."
Google may be the proverbial 800-pound gorilla, but large-scale projects can get canceled at any time, Anil Philip, a developer with Juwo, told TechNewsWorld.
"Essentially this is all one big bet," he said.