Locale App for Android Phones “Wouldn’t Even Be Possible on the iPhone,” Says Winner of $275K Developer Challenge

Last week’s unveiling of the first phone running the Android operating system—the T-Mobile G1, which will be available to consumers on October 22—suddenly made Google’s vision of an open source smart-phone platform to compete with Apple’s iPhone seem much more real. But developers writing applications for Android phones have been immersed in the new operating system for months, and one of the teams that’s gotten the most pre-launch publicity is right here in Boston. It’s the group of current and former MIT students behind Locale, an application that automatically changes an Android phone’s settings based on its location.

If you’re a movie or music fan, for example, you could use Locale to teach your Android phone to shut off its ringer whenever you go to your favorite cinema or concert hall. Or you could program that risqué Gisele Bundchen or Tyson Beckford wallpaper to change into a staid nature scene when you walk into the office. It’s such a bright idea that the Google-led Open Handset Alliance picked Locale last month as one of 10 winners of the $275,000 top prize in its first Android Developer Challenge, a contest designed to stimulate outside programmers to come up with useful apps for the Java-based operating system.

Locale TeamThat’s a cool $55,000 each for the five members of the Locale team—Clare Bayley, Carter Jernigan, Jasper Lin, Jennifer Shu, and Christina Wright—and comes on top of the $25,000 the team won for making it through the first round of the Android contest. The group was one of six teams participating in an experimental spring-semester course, “Building Mobile Applications with Android,” taught by well-known MIT computer scientist Hal Abelson. Though the students had only four months to come up with a functioning application, “All of them actually produced things that worked, which was amazing to me,” Abelson told Bob.

Not only does Locale work—it’s one of the applications that will be available starting October 22 from the Android Market, Google’s answer to the iTunes App Store for the iPhone. That’s according to Carter Jernigan of the Locale team, who’s now a full-time software engineer for Akamai Technologies in Cambridge, MA. Jernigan met me for lunch in Kendall Square this Tuesday, and I asked him how his team came up with the idea for Locale, what it was like to win the Android Challenge, and how he thinks Android compares to other mobile platforms. (Locale “wouldn’t even be possible on the iPhone” thanks to restrictions put in place by Apple that keep third-party programs from running in the background while other programs are active, he says.) An abridged version of our interview follows.

Xconomy: Did you have the idea for Locale going into Abelson’s class, or was it something you came up in the course of the semester?

Carter Jernigan: The brainstorming began before the class. One of the prerequisites was that you needed a team and a project—not necessarily a final idea, but some idea of what you wanted to be. So we did a lot of brainstorming and came up with the idea for the application and assembled the group before we applied to be in the class.

X: Did you also know ahead of time that you wanted to enter the Android developer contest?

CJ: We knew about the contest going into the class, but entering it wasn’t our primary goal. Our primary goal was to do well and get an A. But entering the contest was certainly doable within the context of the class.

X: Why did you pick the problem you did— a location-based application for changing a phone’s settings?

CJ: I was looking for an application that would solve a problem that people have on a daily basis. The idea hit me when I was just observing friends and family members and coworkers having their phones go off all the time. Having the phone behave differently depending on where you are is a way to solve the problem.

X: Haven’t there been previous attempts to get at this problem of cell phones ringing at inappropriate times? For example, I’ve read about movie theaters and playhouses experimenting with jamming devices that would prevent audience members’ phones from receiving calls.

CJ: My understanding is that jamming devices are illegal. And blocking people’s communications is such a blunt way to solve the problem. I don’t think that’s the right solution. One of the things Google is trying to do with Android is … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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