Honeycomb and the Android tablet tipping point

Marko Gargenta on investing in Android tablet development.

There are encouraging signs for Android tablets, including release of the tablet-friendly Android 3.0 (Honeycomb), strong early sales for the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer, and critical acclaim for the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. But these positive signals have yet to translate into a robust inventory of Android tablet applications.

Marko Gargenta (@markogargenta), author of “Learning Android” and the forthcoming “Programming Honeycomb,” discusses the state of Honeycomb and the adoption pattern of Android tablets in the following interview. Many of these topics will be further explored at the upcoming Android Open conference, which Gargenta is co-chairing.

We’ve been hearing about the lack of apps designed specifically for Android tablets. Why is this area slow to develop?

Marko GargentaMarko Gargenta: It’s true that there aren’t as many Android apps designed specifically for tablets. The reason for this is two-fold. On one hand, most of the existing Android apps will happily work on tablets. On the other hand, developers want to see a sizable market share for tablets before they invest their time. It appears that we’re at that tipping point where the number of Android tablet devices out there supports the development costs to create tablet-optimized applications.

What are the biggest technical challenges for Android tablet apps?

Marko Gargenta: Honeycomb brings a couple of new concepts to app development, namely Fragments and new UI capabilities. Developers need to learn how these work in order to take advantage of the new features. While not too complex, they do take some time to master.

The other technical challenge is the emulator. In previous versions of Android, the emulator worked great and most developers did not need a physical device for development. But the Honeycomb emulator is extremely slow. That means developers need actual tablet devices, which are somewhat pricey compared to subsidized phones.

What’s your take on Honeycomb thus far?

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1Marko Gargenta: I like Honeycomb and the general direction of Android for tablets. I think the tools have a ways to go in order to be more appealing to developers. The issues with tablet tools are the same we see with smartphones, but they’re amplified on the tablet side. In addition to the emulator issues, there’s also the quirks and steep learning curve of Eclipse, a powerful and feature-rich tool that many developers use for Android development.

That said, I think Honeycomb is overall a well-designed platform. The Android team took a holistic view at how tablets are used and they developed a platform that addresses that view. At the same time, Honeycomb isn’t as polished as the iPad. There aren’t any major features missing in Honeycomb when compared to iOS, but there are differences in the ecosystems: the economics, the user bases, the distribution, etc.

How difficult would it be for an iPad developer to transition apps to Honeycomb?

Marko Gargenta: There are two types of iOS applications: native and those based on WebKit (web applications wrapped in a native app shell). WebKit apps are easy to port and many tools exist to help with that. Native iOS apps usually require a total rewrite. It’s like starting a new project with very little reusable code.

Which Android tablet do you use?

Marko Gargenta: I use the Motorola Xoom. I have it rooted, and I’ve reinstalled the operating system many times to experiment with how it all works. It’s certainly a heavier tablet than others on the market, but it’s also fairly rugged.

This interview was edited and condensed.


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