Android developers craving new tools, hardware at Google I/O

The conference kicks off in San Francisco on Wednesday

Developers have Wear smartwatches, a stable version of the Android Studio development environment and a lightweight programming language on their wish lists ahead of the Google I/O conference.

Google's plan to extend the use of Android to new types of devices, including smartwatches, will be one of the main themes at this year's I/O conference. The smartwatches will run Wear, an extension of Android that's been customized for smaller screens.

Google is trying to drum up interest for the platform on its developer website before the arrival of the first devices, with blog posts on how applications can be customized for round displays and integration with smoke detectors from the company's Nest.

Getting developers excited about Wear is key to the future success of the platform. If Google and its partners can't offer a large variety of apps, they'll just end up with a regular watch, said Francisco Jeronimo, research director for European mobile devices at IDC.

Wear is a very new thing and it's still just a software preview, so you can't test anything on real hardware, according to Radek Simko, senior developer at U.K. publisher IPC Media. But that will hopefully change at I/O, he said.

Simko is likely to get his wish; Motorola's Moto 360 and the G Watch from LG Electronics are both expected to appear at the conference. In previous years, Google has handed out tablets, smartphones and Chromebooks to attendees, and it wouldn't be a surprise if they got a smartwatch this year.

Another product Google will focus on is Glass, which is being sold in the U.S. and the U.K. At I/O, Google is hosting sessions on how to develop and distribute apps for that wearable computer.

An Android developer can begin building apps for Glass straight away, since there are just a few new concepts to learn. Starting a project in Android Studio is easy and works in the same way as when writing a regular app, according to Pär Sikö, conference manager at Øredev, a major developer conference in Scandinavia.

Because the number of developers working on Glass apps is very limited, there isn't the same amount of help available online.

"You're really alone with some problems," Sikö said.

The hardware still leaves a lot to be desired. The battery time is nowhere near as good as it needs to be; the navigation can sometimes be a little awkward; and it takes too long for the device to respond to voice commands, according to Sikö. But even with these drawbacks, he's optimistic about the future.

"Today's Google Glass is only the beginning of something much bigger. In five years they will look completely different, much nicer and more discreet," Sikö said.

Developers not attending I/O can learn more about Wear and Glass thanks to live streamed sessions on both topics.

One of the big announcements last year was Android Studio, a new IntelliJ-based IDE (Integrated Development Environment) that promises to optimize and simplify app development compared to the existing Eclipse IDE.

"I've been using it daily for almost a year, and it has made a huge difference for me," said Marius Mårnes Mathiesen, head of Android development at Norwegian consultant Shortcut.

For example, the build tools in Android Studio -- which are based on Gradle -- are lot more robust than the ones in Eclipse, and a lot easier to understand, according to Mathiesen.

The IDE is still tagged as an early access preview, but has proved to be fairly stable.

"At the time Android Studio was released, I was surprised to see few obvious bugs and shortcomings. Over the last 10 months I have struggled with about five issues or bugs, mainly while upgrading to significant new versions of either Android Studio itself or the Gradle plugin," Mathiesen said.

In general, the Android development tools have come a long way, but there is still room for improvement. Developers are asking for a more lightweight programming language for Android apps than Java.

"Apple developers just got a chance to use Swift when building iOS apps, and I'd love to see Google supporting either Go or Dart on Android," Mathiesen said.

The languages were initially developed at Google and are now open-source projects. The goal with Dart is to replace JavaScript and Go aims to combine ease of programming with speed. Both are heavily featured on the I/O schedule.

The conference takes place on Wednesday and Thursday at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.

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