Software Development, Chinese Style

This week, Sprint is hosting its ninth annual developer conference in Santa Clara, CA and the theme is definitely smartphones. Android, Palm webOS and Windows Mobile are all featured heavily as Sprint attempts to catch up to T-Mobile and ATT in the smartphone market.

I really only care about the Android. I was anxious to see Sprint’s version of Android and try it out on their network. Would they muck up the interface with a lot of Sprint-only apps designed to make money for them and stand in the way of my using the features in my phone? Charging me to change ring tones, share pictures, and use the navigation software is simply not going to fly anymore.

Sprint was giving out a new HTC Hero plus a month of service to the first 400 developers who proved they could build a “Hello World” application before 6:30 PM. I got a late start at 3:00 PM (this isn’t my real job, you know) and barely made it, delivering my app at 6:10 PM. Most of that time I was waiting for 750 MB of developer tools to download over the crowded WiFi and EVDO infrastructure. The actual app writing took only 20 minutes. But, all’s well that ends well; after too many lattes I got my phone (and a bad case of the jitters).

The Hero is a really nice phone; lightweight, attractive, with a stunning OLED screen that automatically adjusts to room brightness. Its performance is very snappy, especially in the browser. The software is pretty standard Android stuff, with a few little twists. For example, your contacts are now integrated with their Facebook profiles (more useful and less annoying than I thought it would be), there is an included PDF reader, and Microsoft Outlook and Exchange is supported via HTC’s Sync application.

I was glad to see that Sprint had largely left the Android operating system intact. A layer of big phone carrier goo would have been a deal killer for me.

Unfortunately, the phones are running Android version 1.5 while the rest of the world is on 1.6. This means that a lot of newer applications (including the new version of the Android Market) won’t run. With everyone else talking about releasing 2.0 next month, Sprint is saying “2010” for version 1.6. That’s bad.

Worse is the fact that Sprint’s network doesn’t support OTA (over the air) upgrades for the Android. This means that, while other carrier’s customers get their phones upgraded automatically, Sprint users will have to visit the Sprint store or go through some complicated software installation procedure using their PC and a USB cable, a gymnastics exercise which is beyond most users.

So, bottom line, is it time to move back to Sprint? They have snappy data speeds and really broad coverage in most of the country, plus a lot fewer dropped calls than T-Mobile, and I’ve been really happy with their customer support. A lot of people should be really happy with Sprint’s new Android offerings.

But I can’t do business with them if they don’t have the products I want, and what I want is the current version of the Android operating system and all the latest software. After all, what would my friends say?