Google Courting Developers as Device Sprawl Spurs Choices

Google Inc. has successfully wooed developers to build applications for smartphones and tablets based on its Android mobile software. Getting programmers to embrace its other offerings -- including computerized glasses and cars -- is proving a tougher sell.

Take Lovely Inc., a startup whose app helps people find apartment rentals. While Google has a vision for multiple devices and platforms connecting consumers, Lovely is focusing on improving its app for Android and Apple Inc. smartphones instead of chasing every new option, said Chief Executive Officer Blake Pierson.

“Google does a lot and we’ve basically had to prioritize development on the mobile phones,” Pierson said of his San Francisco-based company, which employs fewer than 25 people. “We’re not stepping back and thinking about what are the full plate of options available to us.”

Google’s sprawl of offerings is set to be a major topic today at its annual developer conference, called I/O. As the Web-search giant extends its reach into everything from phones to tablets to self-driving cars and digital thermostats, it is counting on the event to show it can help software makers quickly and easily build on a variety of devices.

Yet as Google plays in more areas, it’s getting harder to persuade developers to get on board to create software for all it does. Google’s Nest Labs yesterday unveiled a program to court programmers. In March, the company announced an Android platform that lets developers build on wearable devices such as smartwatches. That followed the January unveiling of the Open Automotive Alliance, a partnership with carmakers focused on Android.

“There’s an element of overreach,” said Al Hilwa, an analyst with IDC.

Grabbing Attention

Maintaining developer support for all of its initiatives is crucial for Google, since the Mountain View, California-based company needs programmers to help spread its ecosystem. Yet competition for developers’ attention is intensifying. Apple held its worldwide developer conference in San Francisco earlier this month to appeal to programmers, while Amazon last week unveiled the Fire Phone and is trying to woo people to create apps for the device. Facebook Inc. also held its F8 event in April to lay out tools for software makers.

At I/O today in San Francisco, Android chief Sundar Pichai is set to emphasize the company’s reach and many software efforts. He will preview the next release of Android, as well as discuss Android Wear, the version of the operating system for wearable computers. Google also plans to introduce software called Android TV, according to a person with knowledge of Google’s plans who asked not to be identified because the announcement is under embargo.

Simplified Process

For developers, creating Android apps isn’t easy in the first place because programmers often have to consider the multiple screen sizes and different software versions of the operating system used by companies like Samsung Electronics Co. and HTC Corp., which make Android-based gadgets.

Google has been working to make it as simple as possible for developers to move software from platform to platform, enabling Android to act as a common operating system no matter the device. Part of its Android developer site helps programmers think beyond the smartphone when building their software.

“This year at Google I/O, we’re focusing on three key themes: design, develop and distribute -- to help developers build their apps from start to finish, with tools for the entire development cycle,” the company said in an e-mailed statement. “Our large, open platforms -- Android and Chrome -- provide the foundation for developers to evolve their offerings for phones, tablets and other new form factors.”

More Tools

Amid the sprawl, Google has put more emphasis on developers at I/O, according to Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Kantar Worldpanel. That includes a shift in tone last year when the company devoted less time to new gadgets and instead played up the tools that developers could use to make money from their software, she said.

“It’s definitely changed,” she said.

In total, there are more than 1 million apps in the Google Play store. Android-based smartphones made up 78 percent of the global industry in 2013, up from 66 percent in 2012, according to Gartner Inc. The No. 2 player was Apple’s iPhone, which had 16 percent, down from 19 percent.

Varied Interest

Some developers said they’re intrigued by Google’s new offerings. Samuel Lawson, whose startup has a fitness application for Android smartphones, said he is interested in Android Wear and is “starting to look at” developing for wearables.

Yet Mikael Berner, CEO of digital assistant EasilyDo Inc., has no plans to make anything for Android Wear. The entrepreneur has already bet on Samsung’s Gear smartwatches because Samsung has proven itself in hardware, he said. Berner is also evaluating Google Glass, the smart spectacles, but hasn’t pulled the trigger to make an app for that device either.

“You really have to set a high bar for yourself in terms of the things you jump on,” he said, given that many startups don’t have the resources or time to create programs for all devices.

It doesn’t help developers that some of Google’s platforms have flopped. Google Wave, a real-time collaboration software platform that was introduced at I/O in 2009, failed to gain much traction and the company stopped work on it after less than two years.

“I’m honestly surprised by how many initiatives they’re kind of highlighting this year alone,” said Slaven Radic, CEO of Tapstream Network Inc., a Vancouver-based company that helps businesses manage marketing efforts on different platforms. “Every year some of them don’t make it. Some of them do.”

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