Japan's largest carrier to launch test service to combat Android fragmentation

NTT DoCoMo says its new remote testing service will help developers keep up with the variety of Android handsets and software versions

Japan's largest mobile operator is prepping an elaborate testing center, with hundreds of handsets monitored by streaming web cameras, to help software developers debug their apps on the growing morass of Android devices and software versions.

NTT DoCoMo plans to launch the service next month, running it out of a university in northern Japan. App developers will be able to load their software remotely onto devices of their choosing and perform input as users, then watch the results live online.

For the carrier, which controls about half of Japan's 122 million mobile contracts and once had aspirations of dominating mobile software globally, the test center is a tacit admission that it no longer controls the operating systems that run on its network. Until the recent explosion of smartphones, DoCoMo and other Japanese carriers tightly controlled every aspect of their handsets' software and hardware, down to the on-screen icons and physical buttons.

"In the past, with i-mode, we controlled the specification, so we could just create accurate emulators," said Hisakazu Kojima, a company manager in charge of the new system, referring to DoCoMo's online service.

"Our days of OS development are passed," he said.

Kojima said his company surveyed its content providers and found that many, overwhelmed by the sudden proliferation of Android devices and versions on the market, are developing only for the latest versions and ignoring legacy users. DoCoMo is the only one of Japan's three major operators not to offer Apple's iPhone.

The system will allow 60 handsets to be tested at one time, and developers will be able reserve time slots on specific handsets and software to upload and test their applications, as well as run automated batch tests. Staff at the testing center will manually swap handsets in and out of testing ports as required.

Remote testers will be able to use the Android testing interface, which allows for actions such as swipes, taps at specific locations and button presses. More advanced inputs, like pinching on the touch display, or GPS and accelerometer readings, will not be accessible.

The service will not be run for profit, though users will be charged a yet-undetermined fee to use it. It will initially be available for developers accepted onto DoCoMo's "dmenu," a set of applications and services promoted and supported by the company for use on its phones.

DoCoMo is working with the Japanese branch of consulting firm Accenture on the system. Accenture offers a mobile testing suite based on software developed by Perfecto Mobile, headquartered in Israel.

Accenture, which has consulted on similar systems in other locations such as North America, hopes to expand the offering to other carriers in Japan by summer, according to spokesman Kentaro Kanda.

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