EXCLUSIVE | Google reveals new details about its Android mobile phone OS, including why it will be better than other phones.
It took weeks to set up, but APC was lucky enough to score an interview with one of the key members of Google's Android team -- Mountain View, California-based Developer Advocate Dan Morrill (pictured, right).
APC: First up, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. I know you guys are getting close to release of Android, so it must be busy there.
Dan Morrill: We're sure not sitting around at the moment.
APC: I wanted to start off with a basic question, but one which many people are wondering about: what will the strengths of Android be compared to other smart phone operating systems already on the market?
Dan Morrill: Well, to answer that let me kind of start back a little bit and put my responses in context.
Android is a mobile platform that Google is working on essentially because we needed it to exist. We took a look at the mobile space and realised that some of the things that we wanted to be able to do — you know some of the services and software that we wanted to deliver to users — were not really possible in the current landscape of the mobile industry.
People like to play up the drama around this and say things like "oh, you know, the mobile industry is stagnating". I don’t really think that that’s the case. We’ve got a lot of great partners in the telecoms and mobile industries already. The issue isn’t that the innovation isn’t there; the problem is that the innovation wasn’t there as a total package.
For example, Opera makes very good web browsers for mobile phones -- Opera Mobile and Opera Mini. End users can download them and install them on their device and use the web from their phones.
It’s really just that quality browsers aren't ubiquitous across mobile phones. Every individual mobile platform, every individual carrier had bits and pieces of the total solution.
You can look at every carrier and say Company X is doing this right and that’s a really good feature there. But for every time you say that Company X is doing something right there’s something else usually that kind of makes it a little difficult to have a true open platform.
So what we did was we gathered up a group of some like minded partners and formed the Open Handset Alliance and collectively we’re essentially building Android to be the platform that we wanted there to be.
What we’d like to see is a platform that’s open from end to end to allow all of these innovations that are kind of scattered across various carriers and various hardware manufacturers and various phone operating systems to kind of allow them to come together in a perfect storm of innovation on a mobile device.
Above: one of the renderings of the HTC Dream G1 phone running a build of Android floating round the net -- it may or may not be real, though various sightings of the phone 'in the flesh' suggest it is.
APC: Are there any specific weaknesses of mobiles in the past that Google is trying to address? You’ve talked about the fact that it’s a "bits and pieces" ecosystem which makes things difficult. But are there specific aspects of the performance of mobiles or of the web browser capabilities or other aspects of mobiles that you’re specifically addressing?
Dan Morrill: Obviously Android in particular will include an excellent browser. It’s based on the Webkit rendering engine which is the same technology that backs Apple Safari and the iPhone browser and so on.
So it’s definitely a world class browser and obviously that’s important to us. We’re a company on the web and it’s really to our benefit that users have access to the web anywhere they go. The way we like to describe it is "what’s good for the web is good for Google".
The more comfortable that users are with using the web, the more they trust it, the more they feel like it is a viable application platform, the more likely they are to use the internet.
In our research, the more likely or the more frequently people use the web, the more frequently they’ll do a Google search. That’s really kind of how we view it.
We’re not looking at this as like a laundry list of features or a bag of technologies that are correcting deficiencies or something like that. We really view this from more of a higher level. We’re trying to just take a step beyond and try and advance the state of what you can do with an open platform in the mobile world.
APC: So do you plan to offer most Google services via the web browser or are you planning to have more mobile phone integrated functionality?
Dan Morrill: That’s actually a great question and it kind of comes to the crux of the matter in some ways. Obviously you can do a lot with a web browser. Take Google Spreadsheets for example -- it is a sophisticated user interface with an interactive grid of cells where you can enter formulas, change colours and so on.
Even though it’s very familiar to anybody who has ever used a spreadsheet if you think about it in an objective absolute sense, it's a very complicated UI really.
It works well on the browser because you’ve got enough space in the screen and you can fit all this stuff in there. You’ve got a mouse pointer and you can move it around and click on things and you’ve got a full sized keyboard.
However on a mobile device — even if you’ve got a fully functional web browser such as the one in Android or iPhone or Opera Mobile, even though these are fully fledged totally desktop-equivalent browsers, you’ve still only got this tiny little window and you’re trying to fit a sophisticated user interface into it. That is the kind of the fundamental tug of war that goes on when you ask the question should you be building an application for a web browser or what I call "native experience" integrated into the mobile device.
Say you're a businessperson and you have an expense report you need to maintain … is it the best user experience to open up a browser on your phone and then go to Google Spreadsheets and try and navigate around a full sized spreadsheet in this little mobile application? Or is it better to have liked a native application that’s well integrated with the device that is able to present like a mobile optimised user experience?
What we’re finding is that actually there is no really globally applicable answer to that question. The example I gave you about Google Spreadsheets is probably an example of something that would benefit greatly from having an optimised user interface for a mobile device.
But just to give you a counter example, take Google Reader as an example -- there is a hidden advantage to this aside from the user interface, and that hidden advantage is that your device only needs to make one connection to read all those RSS feeds. That connection is a network connection to the Google Reader website and from that you see all of this information that you get from all these feeds you’re subscribed to.
If you were to go to a mobile device and if you just like build a mobile application that is a feed reader, you’re suddenly going to have to make all of those connections to those other blogs from the device.
If you’re a power user of RSS and you’ve subscribed to like 150 blogs you’re mobile device is going to have to make 150 different connections to servers. If you think about this as on like a carrier’s network, these are typically not the highest bandwidth networks in the world and so that is not necessarily going to lead to a good user experience.
So I think what we’re finding is that some applications lend themselves well to optimised mobile experience and some of them might still be done well as a web application that you view in the browser on a mobile device and some of them might be kind of a hybrid where maybe the application has some UI chrome around it and there is a browser view in it.
We want to make sure that developers have the choice and the right tools to use to build these applications for the users in the right way.
APC: So I guess in the same way Google has made applications physically for the iPhone interface you’ll be making web applications which are designed to render specially on Android devices?
Dan Morrill: Yes. That’s actually a great analogy. Google treats Android as just another operating system for mobile devices that we will support. So as you know, Google has a set of applications for iPhone as well as BlackBerry and Symbian and so on.
We will have a set of applications available for Android as well. The majority of those applications right now in fact are essentially Android native applications that are using network connections to the servers and kind of using APIs such as our Google Data APIs to synchronise data between the device and your Google accounts.
APC: One of the interesting things about Android is that you can actually download the SDK free and run the emulator on your computer. It's looking great -- but what I did notice was that the number of apps on there is fairly minimal at the moment. Clearly, it is designed for developers to test their apps in, but can you talk about what Google does have up its sleeve for the release of Android in terms of what kind of apps will be on the phone?
Dan Morrill: You’re absolutely right, the current SDKs is for developers so people haven’t really seen these applications yet. Unfortunately I can’t talk specifically about what applications will be available on the device mostly because I actually don’t have the concrete list ready at hand with me. But that said you can certainly expect that we’ll have a very competitive broad set of Google applications represented on Android.
APC: One of the things I wanted to ask is that Google has a long history of offering previously unheard of value free of charge or very cheaply. For example, the enormous amounts of email storage on Gmail which kind of changed the whole web mail industry or Google apps for $50 a year. Will there be aspects of Android like this too? For example, is it possible Google would offer free push email to Android users where previously that’s been a kind of premium feature in the industry?
Dan Morrill: Again, that’s kind of a specific feature that I can’t comment on right now. But in general I think it would be safe to say that we’re not going to radically change our business model or the way that we approach providing value to users just because this is a mobile device.
APC: Great. I wanted to ask, do you feel confident that consumers will get what the Android name means given that the consumer industry is dominated by easily recognised names like Nokia and Apple iPhone and so on? Is the Android name going to be something that people understand?
Dan Morrill: That question actually touches on some of the marketing plans that some of our partners have so I can’t speak specifically to that question.
But what I can tell you is that from our perspective as Google, really what we’re focused on is the end user experience. Our goal is to make sure that the first Android devices provide that end user experience which is excellent so that users enjoy it so much that they make sure that their next device has it as well.
We want users who get one of these Android devices to be like "wow, this is exactly what I wanted in a cell phone. It’s got all these applications via the Android Market that I can download. It’s got all of these great Google applications. There are no hoops that I have to jump through. It was painless to get online with it."
Then when it comes time for them to upgrade we think they’ll go back to their carrier and say, "I had a great experience with this phone. How do I get the newer model of it?" That I think is the user experience that we’re really aiming for and we think that we’re going to achieve that through this open model.
APC: I was thinking about the open nature of Android and the fact that Android is designed to come in phones of all shapes and sizes presumably from different handset manufacturers. How does Google plan to deal with the issue of apps written for Android needing to adapt themselves to all these different handsets in terms of screen resolution and phone capabilities?
Dan Morrill: Another great question and in fact we’re developers ourselves. Google is a company that builds mobile applications for mobile devices and we are certainly no stranger to the kinds of issues that you just described.
You know there are hundreds of different models of cell phone. There are tens of different form factors for cell phones. There are new form factors emerging all the time and how does a developer kind of navigate this world?
Certainly we do have plans and we recognise the need for a compatibility story for Android but really our perspective on this is before we get down that road and kind of try putting the cart before the horse, we really want to make sure that the first device as I mentioned earlier is really high quality.
So to put it another way, you can’t be compatible when there are no devices on the marketplace. We’re working on the first device now and then you still don’t have to worry about compatibility when there’s only one device in the marketplace.
So really what we’re doing is, even though we’re aware of these issues and we’re kind of considering them as we go along, we’re not yet ready to talk about the formal standardisation or compatibility story that will exist around Android.
APC: Sure. Without pressing you too much, do you plan that Android apps will generally work on all Android phones or will it be more a case of certain Android apps will be optimised for the such and such Android phone and other apps will work better on another Android phone?
Dan Morrill: Android will include the tools that developers need to make that decision on their own. Essentially that’s the short version. What that means is that if a developer chooses it’s in their hands whether they want to build an application which say assumes the existence of a physical hard keyboard.
That’s one option. A developer might choose to build an application that will only work on devices that have an accelerometer and that’s another option for the developer. That’s a decision that’s in their hands.
APC: A large part of the success of the iPhone is it’s heritage with the iPod line being a really great music and video player and having a desktop component that makes it very easy to sync. Does Google plan desktop software to go with Android phones that will help with that aspect of it?
Dan Morrill: Again I can’t talk too much about the specific features that will appear on the device but really our goal is to integrate — well for the applications for Android that we write our goal is to give the users the same sort of experience that they have on the web which really means that data lives in the cloud and your Google data is accessible from your phone. That’s how we want users to think about our software.
We want users to say here’s my phone. My phone has say Google Mail in it or something like that and my Gmail is available on my phone and it’s available on the web. Because of browser technology and the fact that users can already sit down at their desktop and point a browser to Gmail they’ve already got the software if you will to access their data from wherever they are.
So I don’t think the question is so much will there be desktop synchronisation style software as much as it is we’re taking a slightly different look at the user experience.
APC: I guess though in relation to music and video that’s not so much the case — people's personal music and video collection is not so much on the web yet, simply because of bandwidth and online storage limitations.
Dan Morrill: Well yes, to that specific point, at least to the extent that the software that’s built with Android or that’s included with core Android is based — to the extent that that software operates on say music files, content and media files like that will generally be installable to a simple SD card.
So in other words like the first device and I’m sure that all devices will have an SD card, you know some kind of storage internal or external and users can put content on there such as say MP3 music files or files in a variety of other media formats.
They can store those on the SD card and the software will pick it up from there automatically.
APC: Thanks so much for your time, Dan.