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Google Android Developers Battle Bugs, Frustration

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SAN FRANCISCO (Dow Jones) Google claims its Android mobile phone software will usher in a new era of wireless communications. But for developers such as Adam MacBeth, Android has so far brought nothing but headaches and frustration.

MacBeth said he spent weeks trying to write programs for Google's much-hyped mobile phone software, but the Seattle-based engineer and entrepreneur found the developers' tool kit to be so full of bugs and "big gaping holes" that he threw up his arms in exasperation.

"Functionality is not there, is poorly documented or just doesn't work. It's clearly not ready for prime time," said MacBeth, who earlier this year helped found mobile software startup MergeLab.

Complaints about new software aren't unusual, but a sizeable number of developers - the very people that Google hopes will add the bells and whistles to its mobile phone software - are complaining that the tool kit is riddled with coding errors, some of them shockingly basic. Even worse, they said, is that Google has been largely unresponsive to their feedback and some observers suggested the very credibility of Google's mobile phone initiative is on the line.

"Is this a minor glitch or is it indicative of things to come?" asked Bill Hughes, mobile analyst at In-Stat consultancy. "They could slow ultimate adoption of the platform if they don't respond quickly and specifically to the concerns of the wireless developer community."

For its part, Google said the software kit it released last month amounts to an 'early look' designed specifically to get developers started as soon as possible and to elicit their feedback. The company said the feedback has been very positive and that it is in the process of incorporating various suggestions into new tool kits.

Android is at the heart of Google's attempt to develop cheap, mass-market cell phones that can easily access the Internet. The search company hopes these next-generation phones will significantly boost mobile Web usage and increase its ad revenue as a result. If successful, Google could shake up the wireless industry by changing the economics of mobile phones and by forcing carriers to offer more open Internet access.

Last month, Google released a set of software tools to help developers write programs for an Android phone. The company even said it would dish out $10 million in prize money to the authors of the best programs.

It is impossible to know how many developers have jumped on the Android bandwagon. With the first Android handset not set to hit the market until the second half of 2008, only a dozen or so small software companies have joined the alliance. Most of the Android crowd to date seems to be independent programmers who have their eyes on the prize money.

And some of those indie programmers have not been shy about making their opinions known on the company's online developers' forum. Tim Wisniewski, one of the more outspoken coders, told Dow Jones that it was "shocking" that some of the "basic" platform architecture doesn't yet work.

Group activity has fallen from 6,000 posts in November to about 1,600 comments so far this month, a decline some observers said was a reflection of the mounting frustration of many developers.

"They are not getting a lot of feedback from Google, as usual. That only adds to their frustration," said Frank Huguenard, whose privately held Mediaware Communications is hoping to market an Internet browser that will let people use their computers to tap into and use their existing mobile or landline phone accounts.

Not everyone is griping. Sean Moshir, chief executive of mobile security software startup CellTrust, said his team is making progress developing a secure text messaging application for Android.

"There's been a lot of high expectations, especially with version one. But you have to understand that things are just rolling out," he said.

Rick Genter, a professional software engineer who is writing an Android application in his free time, said that while Google's mobile software is buggy, it is not necessarily any worse than any other software at such an early stage. He said there should be plenty of time for Google to tidy things up before Android handsets hit the market next year.

Genter may well be right, but Hughes said grumbling among the Android developer community highlights the fact that Google has stepped into an area with which it is unfamiliar and missteps might be more common.

"I believe that there is a lot of wait-and-see," he said. "It all depends on how the Google Android team responds."

Even MacBeth said he is willing to bide his time a little while longer. Android could very well emerge as the foundation for a new generation of mobile phones - he just wishes he could get to work sooner rather than later.

-By Scott Morrison, Dow Jones Newswires; 415-765-6118; scott.morrison@dowjones.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

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