A warm welcome for Android

Olga Kharif
24 Jan 2008
00:00

Nikita Ivanov and his 14 employees are working on an application that would harness the processing power within millions of cell phones to create one big supercomputer. The idea is to enable companies and government agencies to exploit all the idle computing power in their employees' mobile phones and perhaps even handsets belonging to non-employees who have agreed to lease that spare capacity.

To create this 'grid' computing application, Ivanov's startup firm has chosen a mobile software platform that doesn't yet run on a single commercially available phone. Rather than Windows Mobile or the Symbian operating system, GridGain is using Android, a platform spearheaded by Google (GOOG) that has drawn scores of software developers with its promise of flexibility to create unusual applications.

GridGain is one of thousands of Android-based projects in the works. Another would enable users to record and share audio tours of museums or galleries. One is a music player that can connect a cell-phone user with people who have similar musical tastes and happen to be nearby. All underscore the ways that developers hope to use Android to take phones in new directions with greater ease than today's prominent wireless platforms. To succeed, though, they, along with Google and its partners, will need to work some kinks out of the system.

No support for Bluetooth

It's telling that Android, first unveiled by the Google-led Open Handset Alliance in November, is spurring all this interest among developers even though no wireless carriers have definitively agreed to allow such handsets on their networks. Or that Android is still missing many key capabilities such as support for Bluetooth wireless connections to headsets and other devices.

Nearly 200 industry movers and shakers recently surveyed by Chetan Sharma Consulting said they believe Android-based mobiles won't make even a small dent during 2008 in the smartphone market, which is dominated by the Nokia-controlled (NOK) Symbian platform, Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows Mobile, and Research In Motion's (RIMM) BlackBerry.

But Android's late arrival on the market doesn't seem to be weighing heavily on many developers, thanks in no small measure to the reassurance that comes from Google's financial might. In the first two months, programmers downloaded the software development kit for Android more than 250,000 times, according to Google. While only a tiny fraction of such downloads typically result in an actual application being written, the display of interest is striking. By contrast, developers downloaded the Symbian OS Getting Started guide some 70,000 times in the 12 months ended in September.

Obstacles for Wi-Fi army

It's not just small software firms that are showing interest. Motorola (MOT) is trying to fill 21 openings for engineers familiar with Android. Most large software companies are playing with Android in their labs.

Still, the success of Android hinges on Google's ability to get the platform in better working order. One developer who really needs help is Peter Wojtowicz. He and several collaborators are using Android to build a cell-phone game called Wi-Fi Army, where competing teams would hunt each other using Google Maps and location data from the Wi-Fi hotspots nearest the rival camp's cell phones. Upon finding an enemy, a player uses the phone's camera as a rifle scope to shoot.

But Wi-Fi Army faces a more significant hurdle than enemy bullets: Android doesn't yet support Wi-Fi wireless technology.

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