How the Google Phone Works

Google Phone Applications

Google showed off an early build of the Android Operating System at several conferences in 2008.
Google showed off an early build of the Android Operating System at several conferences in 2008.
Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images

These days, it's not enough for your smartphone to be able to check e-mail and surf the Web as well as make phone calls. You need to have at your disposal a host of useful, fun, productive or just plain pointless applications. The iPhone's success has proven that a strong application library can excite customers. Google's Android platform appears to be following suit.

Months before the HTC G1 hit the shelves, Google unveiled the Android platform to developers. The company created a limited software developer kit (SDK) and distributed it to developers. Google even laid down the Android Developer Challenge -- a contest that had a collective prize pool of $10 million.

The top developers earned $275,000 for their applications. Here's a small sample of what made the grade:

  • CompareEverywhere and GoCart are two different applications that let you compare prices and read reviews for merchandise while you're in the store. You take a picture of the item's bar code with the phone's camera. These applications identify the item and aggregate reviews and prices from different sources.
  • The Life360 application is part social networking, part news service. It lets you set up a neighborhood-centric online community and share information with other people in that group. It can alert you of emergencies like a tornado warning that affects your neighborhood. Even if you are miles away, you can keep up with what's going on back at home.
  • Locale is an application that taps into Android's GPS support. First, you identify various locations you frequent using Google Maps. Then, you create a list of phone settings for each location. For example, at work or in class you'd probably want your phone's ring tone to be appropriate and at a low volume. Once you create the settings for each location, your phone automatically switches to the proper setting based on your current location. Using Locale, you never have to worry about silencing your phone when you walk into your favorite movie theater!
  • For the green-conscious, there's Ecorio. This application tracks your global carbon footprint and offers suggestions to reduce your personal impact on the environment. You can use the Google Maps application to plot out a trip and Ecorio offers suggestions for car pooling, public transportation and other tips to create the smallest ecological impact.
  • The developers of the Softrace application wanted to build a program that inspires people to maintain an active lifestyle. Softrace lets people set up footraces, bicycle races and other competitions using the Google Maps function. Participants can travel to a race destination, begin the race and try to make the best time. They can compare their results with those of other participants.

There are many more Android applications in the $275,000 winners' circle and beyond. And several developers for some of the better-known iPhone applications have expressed interest in developing an Android version of their apps. While the iPhone has a head start, Android has the potential to equal and perhaps even surpass it on the application front.

So how do these developers build applications for the Android? We'll learn more about the application development process in the next section.