Young hacker feels Android's going to be digitally ubiquitous
Ask him where he sees Android headed, and he's confident that the open source mobile operating system will be ubiquitous, powering digital devices across the board – from fridges and heaters to every kind of mobile device there is.
“We'll see it power everything ... even cars, maybe,” says the 24-year-old Android developer from Portugal. In Bangalore to attend and deliver the keynote address at Droidcon India, the first-ever international Android conference in the country, Diogo Ferreira is convinced that Android has the potential to transform the digital world as we know it. For instance, he talks about a CISCO gadget presentation where he saw a smartphone with a tablet built into it (that's made on Android), so when you're going for a meeting you can simply pick up the tablet from the phone and proceed. Being open sourced, Android, he believes, has the potential to go places. “The exciting thing is that it's so open that if someone wants to, they can simply take the code and take it in any direction.”
Mr. Ferreira, who is currently pursuing his Ph.D., is a well-known name in the Android community. Besides developing apps that were popular, and contributing significant code, the young developer is part of an open source community, CyanogenMod, which maintains a community version of Android.
An aftermarket firmware for cellphones, based on the Android operating system, CyanogenMod is a distribution of Android that you can install in the device after you buy it (it does not come pre-installed or modified like it does with existing Android devices). While it offers features — such as private browsing, or something as simple as FM Radio that a manufacturer may choose not to enable — that are not found in the official Android-based firmware provided by vendors like HTC and Samsung. The versions of Android provided by Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) are often modified considerably. Mr. Ferreira explains that a distribution like CyanogenMod allows you to customise. It also serves as a platform for developers who can build whatever they want and put it on their device. For instance, he points out, if you are worried about privacy and tracking, you can use your own customised version of Android that “gives you total control over your device”. While the industry was not very supportive of third-party firmware development, things have begun to change. Mr. Ferreira points out that some vendors like Sony Ericsson, Samsung and LG are really supportive.
Android's problems with “hardware interface” and the general perception that it remains an operating system for geeks is something Mr. Ferreira is quick to dismiss. He believes that often, the comparisons are skewed. For instance, he says that when the inevitable comparison to the iPhone is made, people are comparing low end, slower-processing hardware with the iPhone. “That's not a fair comparison.” In fact, if compared with a high-end gadget, the Android provides a much smoother and faster experience, he says. The chinks with the user interface, he adds, are currently undergoing huge improvement by Google.
Though distributions like the one he works on do “play tricks” to provide a better experience on cheaper hardware, he admits there are still many bottlenecks. However, ideally, he believes that an open platform like Android should be able to bridge the divide between the high-end devices and the cheaper phones. “So even if the performance is not optimum, people who can't afford an iPhone should be able to be part of the ecosystem,” he emphasises.
Another significant challenge that the open source operating system faces is that of keeping cohesion between different versions (or modifications) of the operating system. For instance, there are many versions of Android that various OEMs make (like Amazon's KindleFire), so what happens when there is a modification to Android? “For Android itself, the main challenge I foresee is companies maintaining different and competing versions of Android, which may end up with Android becoming its own biggest competitor.” In an ideal open environment, this problem may not exist. CyanogenMod, for instance, contributed their patches back to Android, while the environment that Android operates in — the telecommunications and gadgets space — is closed by default.
Ice Cream Sandwich
Earlier this week, Google released the code for Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). Mr. Ferreira says that this is one of the new exciting developments on the block, and is looking forward to seeing what hackers will now do with this new code base.
We'll see synergies between Google TV (which is based on Android too), the Chrome OS (Google's netbook operating system) and Android, he says. It is only a matter of time before all these services begin to converge, feels Mr. Ferreira.
“Right now we are seeing a turning point in Android with seamless support for phones and tablets. In the future I believe TV and laptops may be part of this seamless experience where you can just enjoy your device anywhere and have all your data available at all times. That's exciting.”