HTC opens up to developers

HTCdev team members Jad Boniface and Michael Ludden tell ZDNet UK why manufacturers are rushing to open up their Android UIs for modification and why HTC's Windows Phone users no longer see Sense
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

HTC, like its rivals in the Android device market, is courting developers to design their apps with the manufacturer's handsets in mind.

Device makers such as HTC, Samsung and Sony Ericsson put their own mark on the stock Android operating system with customised user interfaces. HTC has the Sense UI, notable for its flip-style clock and weather animations, but now also host to new stylus input and 3D capabilities.

Lately, there has been a push among Android phone makers to bring on board people whose modifications to UIs have in the past taken place without manufacturer approval. For example, Samsung hired CyanogenMod's Steve Kondik, and Sony Ericsson gave its blessing to FreeXperia. HTC itself has released an unlock bootloader to encourage modifiers.

Earlier in October, the company's new HTCdev team sponsored the DroidCon developer meet-up in London, the first time the handset maker has taken such an active role in trying to win over those who write the apps that make the platform.

ZDNet UK caught up with Jad Boniface, the programme director for the HTCdev initiative, and Michael Ludden, from the HTCdev evangelist team, to find out more about the company's ramped-up effort and what it means for developers who want to modify Sense-based devices.

Q: What is HTCdev, and what can it offer developers?
A: (JB) It's a relatively new initiative from HTC. Recently we started this programme to have a formal presence with the developer community, to provide them with the access and resources they need to be successful.

We have a suite of APIs that you can't get through the standard Android framework. We're very committed to using the pens and HTC Scribe technology for our tablets.

The other API we're featuring heavily is the API for stereoscopic 3D, for the Evo 3D, for example. That allows developers to build 3D games that will be glasses-free, and consumers can play that on their Evo 3D.

We have a website that launched in August. Since then, we've had 500,000 unique visitors. It's been successful, although keep in mind that a lot of those visitors are coming to the site for the unlock bootloader functionality.

There has been a push recently by manufacturers to take on people who make modifications, like Kondik and FreeXperia. Why is everyone suddenly rushing to do this?
(JB) Manufacturers have come to realise that developer mindshare is one of the hottest commodities in our industry. For us it's just as important as the retail customer. We have to get the hearts and minds of developers to reach that pinnacle of success.

Manufacturers have come to realise that developer mindshare is one of the hottest commodities in our industry.
– Jad Boniface, HTC

A lot of the manufacturers and industry players are going after the same developers, and it's becoming somewhat competitive in the same way as the retail environment.

(ML) Then there are a lot of things like the OpenSense SDK — we've opened up our SDK so developers can add functionality without breaking their app.

We also have a big focus on being able to build your app and differentiate it on an HTC device without breaking Android. You can build an Android app and then, with couple of lines of code, add pen-input functionality. On an HTC Flyer it will recognise your app, but on an Evo 4G it will not break because that phone doesn't have pen input. It's differentiation without fragmentation.

The Sense UI is also found on some of HTC's earlier Windows Phones. Is the HTCdev programme aimed just at Android developers, or also at those working with Microsoft's platform?
(JB) It's a global programme, and we provide resources for all the platforms that HTC currently supports, but the SDKs we're offering are specifically for the Android platform. We don't offer SDKs for Windows Phone. Microsoft strictly controls all that.

Although the first HTC Windows Phones did have Sense, the latest ones do not.
(ML) Correct. The Windows Phone 7 experience is very uniform. We still do have...

...differentiation on that platform though, from the point of view of the HTC Hub. But it's not open for customisation in the way that Android is.

Is it fair to say you were trying to offer a similar experience across Android and Windows Phone 7 when the first HTC Windows Phones came out, but this is no longer the case?
(JB) That would be fair to say. Microsoft is taking the lead. We don't have the same level of access to tools and resources on Windows Phone 7 as we do on Android.

Returning to HTC's Android efforts, you've introduced version 3.5 of Sense on recent phones. Have you had to take the imminent launch of Ice Cream Sandwich into account, given that it will change the stock Android smartphone interface to bring it in line with the tablet UI?
(ML) We're very excited about Ice Cream Sandwich, although [its release is] not announced yet. It should have no impact on our Scribe Pen or the 3D software.

What's next for Sense after 3.5?
(JB) There's not a lot I can share at this point as far as the roadmap goes, but from a developer standpoint we're looking to open features in the Sense experience through the APIs offered under the OpenSense SDK umbrella. For a start, there's the Beats API, which is part of the investment HTC has made in Beats [Dr Dre's audio firm, in which HTC bought a controlling stake in August].

How many developers have signed up to the HTCdev initiative?
(JB) Tens of thousands. We had over 500,000 unique visitors and they haven't all registered, but there have been tens of thousands who registered to download the SDK or the unlocker.

There's only one HTC device in the UK, the Flyer, that supports pen input. Why would a developer decide to write a stylus-friendly app for Sense?
(ML) We have four [variants] worldwide of the Flyer and also just launched the AT&T Jetstream. It's the first tablet with LTE in the US and it also leverages the pen.

We're committed to using the pen as a differentiator. It lets developers add something special to their generic Android app.
– Jad Boniface, HTC

(JB) We're committed to using the pen as a differentiator. It lets developers add something special to their generic Android app. There's enough sales volume and market share to provide an incentive to a certain number of developers to add that functionality to their app.

For developers that have a high quality, and who are willing to work with us, we can also feature them on HTC Likes [the company's portal for recommended apps] to allow them and their app to come to the surface. We've had several million download referrals through HTC Likes — obviously that was long before the pen came into existence, but it's a pretty good incentive.

(ML) It allows you to get into new markets, too. In China there is no [official Android Market], and HTC Likes is the way to get your app downloaded in China.

Samsung is now also doing pen input with the Galaxy Note. Why write apps for Sense and not for that?
(ML) That reinforced the idea that this is the direction the industry is going to go in. We have multiple devices already in the market, and this would be the way to get involved.

The same question must be asked regarding your 3D implementation. There seems to be just one phone, the Evo 3D, that supports it, and you have LG doing its own version of 3D.
(ML) We have two different [versions], GSM and CDMA, of the Evo 3D being sold across a number of operators.

(JB) We think it's fantastic that this innovation is happening in the industry. We provide a lot of tools and documentation on the website, and it's a value-added proposition — you can have that app in 3D on the Evo or without on another handset.

One of the considerations to think about with 3D app development is it's giving users a low-cost way to create 3D content that they can then view on their 3D TVs.

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