Android is rapidly extending beyond the phone and becoming a hardware hub, with capabilities that allow a wide range of applications and interface possibilities. Features like Near Field Communication (NFC) and the Open Accessory Development Kit (ADK) are opening new arenas for developers.
Brian Jepson (@bjepson) is an O’Reilly editor and hardware hacker who’s recently been focusing on making things with technologies like Arduino and Android. Jepson and Tyler Moskowite (@tmoskowite), a programmer and engineering intern at Make Magazine, will be presenting a workshop on “Getting Physical with Android: Open Accessories & NFC” at the upcoming Android Open Conference. I recently spoke to Jepson and Moskowite about the convergence of Android and hardware hacking, and what it might mean for the Android ecosystem.
Our interview follows.
What does Android’s openness allow developers to do?
Brian Jepson: I think the biggest thing is that it allows developers to experiment. On iOS, you have to spend money to even deploy apps to a phone that you own. And unless you put an app in the App Store or sign up for the Enterprise or Academic programs, you can only distribute apps to 100 devices total. It’s cumbersome. I love that you can “sideload” apps on Android: make an app, distribute it outside the Android Market, and people can use it.
Tyler Moskowite: Allowing developers to reproduce their own versions of the Android operating system has resulted in many custom versions of Android. The most notable one is Cyanogen Mod, which provides the base for lots of custom Android systems.
What kinds of things are makers building with NFC, the Accessory Development Kit, and Arduino?
Brian Jepson: I haven’t seen much being done with NFC, though I did a wacky demo with it that involved Processing, Arduino, and Twitter. But there have been lots of cool things done with the ADK. I’ve seen everything from tablet-controlled dancing robots to a cell-phone-controlled ball maze inspired by the life-size labyrinth at Google I/O.
There have been interesting projects going on with Arduino since before the ADK. In fact, I built a variation on Tero and Kimmo Karvinen’s Soccer Playing Robot (from Make: Arduino Bots and Gadgets) and brought it to Google I/O. This combined Android and Arduino, but they communicated over Bluetooth instead of a cable, the way the ADK currently works. Tero and Kimmo’s robot is one of my favorite Android/Arduino projects. Amarino is also very cool, though it’s more of a platform for connecting Arduino and Android.
How big a problem is fragmentation in the Android ecosystem?
Brian Jepson: It’s more noticeable to me because I work with things like NFC and ADK that require a very recent version of Android. I don’t know how big a deal it is for lots of other folks. I can look at the fragmentation dashboard, and yeah, it’s not pretty. At least Android 2.x is dominating. But it’s a problem and a headache for developers. I figure Google can mitigate the problem, but I don’t see them ever making it go away.
Tell us a little about the Mini Maker Faire event at Android Open. What kind of makers are you looking for?
Brian Jepson: We are looking for anyone who has made something cool using Android and related technologies. We’d love to have a broad spectrum of crafts, electronics, robots, and so forth.