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Google "Seeds" Developer Community with Conference Freebies

Google sure knows how to get the attention of software developers -- 5,000+ of whom nearly blew the roof off San Francisco's Moscone Center West during the opening keynote of the search giant's annual Google I/O Conference on Tuesday when they learned they would each be getting a free Samsung Galaxy tablet.

But getting their attention and winning their hearts and minds are two different things, and the latter is absolutely essential if the company really wants to become a platform player.

This isn't the first time Google I/O attendees went home with pricey swag. Google started what has become a tradition by handing out Android phones at the first event in 2008. Redmonk analyst Stephen O'Grady, whom I ran into at the show, calls this a seeding strategy. If the success of Android phones is any indication, he said, it's a strategy that's probably working.

"This is a numbers game," he said. "There are, what, a couple thousand iPad apps? Android tablets have a long way to go to catch up to that. On the other hand, Android phones have a bigger market share collectively than the iPhone. It could be argued that giving away the hardware platform you'd like developers to target is an effective strategy."

Industry watchers at comScore reported in March that Android smartphones actually moved into the number one spot in January, with 31.2 percent of the smartphone market. In the fourth quarter of 2009 and the first quarter of 2010, Apple's iPhone OS hadmore than triple the market share of Android phones, according to Nielsen. The iPhone OS market share was 28 percent, compared to Android's measly 9 percent.

That's a hell of a harvest.

The limited-edition Galaxy 10.1 Honeycomb-based tablet (Android 3.0) is a sweet device, and the hundreds of attendees hunkered down in every nook and cranny of the conference center fondling them seemed entranced. But Google's "seeding" didn't stop there: On Wednesday the company added Verizon 4G LTE hotspots to the swag bag, along with a promise to provide every attendee with a Chrome-powered notebook when the first such devices hit the market in June. (More on this from my colleague Kurt Mackie here.)

Day One of this year's conference was all about Android. Google execs talked up the upcoming Android 2.4 release, clunkily nicknamed "Ice Cream Sandwich." No launch date was given, but a big promise was made: this release will merge Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) with Android 3.0 (Honeycomb).

"Our goal with Ice Cream Sandwich is to deliver one operating system that works everywhere, regardless of device," Hugo Barra, product management director for Google's Android group wrote on the Google Code Blog. "Ice Cream Sandwich will bring everything you love about Honeycomb on your tablet to your phone, including the holographic user interface, more multitasking, the new launcher and richer widgets."

During his conference opening keynote, Barra also promised to address the platform fragmentation problem that has plagued the Android ecosystem almost from its birth -- 300+ devices with who-knows which version of the OS; it ain't pretty. Google is partnering with a bunch of companies to coordinate the update process. The "founding team" includes Verizon, HTC, Samsung, Sprint, Sony Ericsson, LG, T-Mobile, Vodafone, Motorola and AT&T. Customers buying new smartphones from these vendors will receive Android platform updates for eighteen months after the first launch -- if the hardware supports the update, Barra said.

If these companies can get their upgrade act together, they'll improve the platform for consumers, certainly, but they'll also make life easier for Android developers (who cheered the announcement almost as loudly as they did the free tablets). And that's bound to win a few more hearts and minds.

Day One of the conference also saw the launch of the headline-grabbing Music Beta program, a cloud-based music service available now by invite only; a new Web-based movie rental service available from the Android Market ; and a new hardware/accessories support offering, dubbed Android Open Accessory. All very cool.

Day Two of the show shifted to the Chrome OS and the new Chromebooks, which prompted one attendee to opine, "It feels like Google is competing with itself with Android and Chrome."

To me Google's Chrome OS strategy seems to be the realization of a concept former Sun Microsystems' CEO Scott McNealy flogged for years: "The network is the computer." I'll be watching with interest to see if, through Google, the industry has finally caught up to that vision.

As for what one attendee called Google's "Oprah moment," I encourage the company to continue seeding the developer ecosystem with hardware platforms at its annual conference. Two words to consider as you plan next year's show: vehicle telematics.

Posted by John K. Waters on May 12, 2011