Android: Much Coolness, But 3 Big Problems

Like all the other geeks in attendance, I couldn’t help myself from letting out an audible “whooo” when Google showed off an Android phone demo Wednesday that linked Street View to a compass (see video below). Sure it was just a demo, but watching the virtual-reality performance of photo-maps linked to hand motions shows how cool new applications could be when they start by running on a high-end mobile phone.

Delivering lots of cool new apps is the promise of Android, the open source mobile OS project from Google. With a much-improved iPhone-ish look and feel, the base Android platform seems ready for prime time and on schedule to launch somewhere, sometime, later this year. But I still see three big problems for Android apps that could keep the add-on market small for the foreseeable future.

Specifically the problems are:

— how many carriers are really going to offer Android phones?
— how will users find Android applications?
— how will developers convince users to take a chance and download their app?

Until Google can help answer those questions, Android apps are probably going to lag far behind those provided by big carriers on their captive hardware/software offerings, especially those designed for the already popular iPhone.

With a big crowd overall and packed rooms at Android-specific discussions, the Google I/O conference Wednesday showed there is great interest from the developer community for the idea of an open-source platform for the development of mobile apps. And the list of early winners in Google’s Android app development contest shows a wide range of creative thinking, with developers using the features of mobility and base apps like maps to build new, rich and sometimes quirky programs that would likely never get past the first gatekeeper at AT&T Wireless or Verizon.

But getting back to the problems — without a committed list of service providers, Google doesn’t have much of a market to offer developers yet. Similarly, the company’s silence on any kind of an apps marketplace means developers might be on their own when it comes to marketing their one-off ideas, adding a huge degree of difficulty, especially for smaller shops.

And the lack of an application certification process (Google said Wednesday that users will be asked to certify an app themselves at install) means another big hurdle for developers to cross, namely convincing users to trust that their app is safe, won’t break their phone or transmit personal info to undisclosed locations.

Seems like a lot to ask from users, especially those in the U.S., who historically haven’t been able to do much with their phones other than download new ringtones. Add education to the list of above problems and you see why I think this market is going to stay small for some time.

UPDATE: It looks like the Google folks may have been more forthcoming about an Android Apps store in later panels at the I/O show, according to this post from the Register. (I only sat through the first panel led by developer advocate Jason Chen, who when questioned about such a store agreed that “distribution is hard” and that Google was working on something, but didn’t have anything to announce.) We have a message in to Google PR to clarify, and will update if and when we hear back. UPDATE 2: Here is an official statement from a Google spokesperson:

It would be a great benefit to the Android community to provide a place where people can go to safely and securely download content and where a billing system would allow developers to get paid for their effort. We wouldn’t have done our job if we didn’t provide something that helps developers get distribution. We have nothing to announce at this time.

Paul Kapustka, former managing editor for GigaOM, now has his own blog at Sidecut Reports.