Android OEMs’ Developer Program Problem

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New Google Android handsets are being introduced all the time, from a variety of manufacturers. Consumers may be wowed by slim designs or splashy camera specs, but there’s an underlying problem for many software platforms: the developer program.

Today, Huawei announced its latest device, the Mate 9. In a first for Huawei, it will (eventually) launch in the U.S., signaling the company’s intent to become a more global brand.

With the Mate 9 comes EMUI, Huawei’s proprietary smartphone interface. Sadly, it’s just not very good. (The best praise Engadget’s Chris Velazco could give it? “You might not hate it.”) But while Huawei improves on its own flavor of Android, it’s leaving developers behind.

The ‘Huawei Developer’s Zone’ is a busy hub of catch-all services, which makes sense as the company involves itself with much more than smartphones (there are IoT services, video solutions and services for cloud computing to consider). The problem is that most developers would rather find a more widely used solution via GitHub, where even Huawei’s open source efforts go unused.

Huawei has an ‘eSDK IDE’ for Eclipse or Visual Studio (both actual IDEs, by the way), but that further compounds its problems: Visual Studio can’t take full advantage of Android toolkits, and Google has dropped support for Eclipse in favor of its own Android Developer Studio.

Xiaomi fares better within the open-source community, but its developer center is confusing for any developers who don’t speak Chinese. Even in translation, the developer hub seems more attuned to consumers than developers looking for APIs and SDKs.

Domestically, OnePlus has been kicking up a lot of dust as a smartphone manufacturer, but plays its cards close to the chest. It has a presence on GitHub, but limits its involvement to basic Android kernel repos and various other boilerplate codebases. The company has no developer hub to speak of.


Developer Programs Work

First, let us assuage a core concern: none of these OEMs prevent you from developing apps for their devices. Each uses Android, so you can always write an Android app and distribute it to the world at large via the Play Store (except Xiaomi, which uses its own proprietary app-distribution channel).

New data from Strategy Analytics places Android’s worldwide market share at 88 percent, and manufacturers such as Xiaomi and Huawei are gatekeepers for the world outside of the U.S. It’s a bit of yin-yang; they’re bigger outside of the United States, but also want to be available within it. Both want to stand apart in a crowded Android market, something developers can help with.

But if a developer finds a good use case for Huawei’s dual-cameras, creating an experience for it is impossible. Huawei doesn’t make an API for its cameras available via its developer portal or GitHub.

Similarly, developers who want to create a dedicated experience for a OnePlus or Xiaomi phone are out of luck. Neither manufacturer seems interested in embracing third-party development on their platforms.

That all stands in contrast to Samsung and LG, which have worked hard to create very robust developer programs. Samsung even has an annual developer’s conference in San Francisco. Both leverage their mobile developer platforms to grow satellite offerings such as wearables.

An argument could be made that developer programs aren’t necessary from the likes of OnePlus, Xiaomi or Huawei, because none achieve the scale of Samsung or LG. But any dreams of becoming as large as those companies are in trouble without a developer program.

Developer programs don’t mean companies relinquish control of their platforms. Well-built devices will attract customers, but a great experience will keep them around. Giving developers better, more direct access to platforms and markets outside of the U.S. will keep app-builders around, too.