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Android Devs Cry for Java Replacement

Reddit's "Ask Me Anything" (AMA) forum has attracted some brave souls since the "I Am A" (IAmA) subreddit was established in 2009. Everyone from Snoop Dog to Donald Trump (set to host an AMA on July 27) has signed up for this unique, almost-anything-goes public Q&A. Last week Google's Android engineering team took the AMA plunge for the first time, just a few days after the release of the fifth and final developer preview of Android Nougat (v7.0).

My colleague, David Ramel, covered the event and pointed out to me the flood of questions about Java.

Android applications are developed in Java, so the high level of interest wasn't surprising. But we live in a polyglot world, and many of the questions about Java were actually about how (and whether) the Android team will support other languages in the future. A question from "mastroDani" was typical:

Java is a good programming language but [its] age is starting to feel, a modern language would make the development easier and faster. The community is creating many unofficial language supports for developing in Android: kotlin, groovy, scala, just to name a few. This shows there's a request for it. However, choosing one of those language comes with some level of risk or unexpected side effects because of its unofficial support. Is any of those language gonna become officially supported? Or is there any plan to move from Java to something else?

Anwar Ghuloum, engineering director for the Android Core Platform group, fielded that question: "We don't have any plans to move to a new language. Java has a lot of advantages to it and the versions 8, 9, and 10 have some pretty interesting stuff for developers. We are planning to track more closely in time to the Java language standard...."

Another questioner, "elkaramba," also wondered if the team might be at least considering support for Kotlin, a statically typed language similar to Scala developed by JetBrains. The question prompted a lively exchange among several participants. mastroDani observed: "Look at how many question [have] been asked about it. Someone even suggested we should use Swift to develop Android apps. I would be really surprised if Google kept ignoring all those voices and I don't want to jump on a language risking having to change it again in a few years."

Later "Inkprk114" brought the conversation back to the question of Android support for Kotlin: "... I personally doubt that Google will officially endorse any other language for a long while, but I would like to know how your team feels about some of the alternative languages that are popping up -- Kotlin being the one I'm most interested in. Do you feel it's in stable enough condition to use for production applications? Would you recommend using other languages, or do you feel sticking with Java is still the correct decision for developers? Have there been any discussions regarding Kotlin on the team, and are you guys in touch with any of the developers of the language over at Jebrains?"

Ghuloum's response: "We don't have any plans to officially support a new language in Android, so we'd encourage folks to continue to use Java :) That said, you should continue to use what works for you."

mastroDani wrapped up the discussion with this observation: "The community is creating many unofficial language supports for developing in Android: kotlin, groovy, scala, just to name a few. I believe the reason behind this is that those language [make] writing software easier, less tedious and more boilerplate-free. However, choosing one of those language comes with some level of risk or unexpected side effects because of [Google's lack of support].... "

It's clear from this conversation (which you'll want to read in its entirety) that Google is solidly wed to Java on Android and has no plans at the moment to support anything else. That's not surprising, either; the company has invested a lot in Java (in court costs alone). And earlier this year Google announced plans to replace its Apache Harmony implementation of the Java libraries in upcoming versions of the Android OS with Oracle's OpenJDK, effectively replacing the code that has been at issue in the long-standing legal dispute between the two companies.

I'm sure it's useful to a get clear, from-the-horse's-mouth answer to this question for Android developers, a growing number of whom are very interested in Kotlin, Groovy and Scala, "just to name a few." How long the company will be able to stick with this monolingual strategy remains to be seen.

Posted by John K. Waters on 07/26/2016 at 2:30 PM


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