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

10/2/08Follow @wroush

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 »

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

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  • Dean

    I call FUD. There are location based apps that turn settings off and on for the Mac, and there have been for years. This is certainly possible on the iPhone.

  • Wade Roush

    @Dean: Yes, the iPhone could run such an app, in principle. Jernigan’s point was that Apple’s ban on third-party apps running in the background prevents the kind of inter-app communication needed to make a service like Locale usable on the iPhone.

  • Bravia

    Not Possible? what are they smoking?? A regular phone has “profiles” and you normally enable it via a single key, if a regular phone had GPS/LBS it’s a matter of setting a variable to kick in via auto update.

  • Carlos

    Facts:

    - The iPhone SDK doesn’t allow third party developers to modify phone settings.

    - The iPhone SDK doesn’t allow third party developers to run background applications.

    - The Android platform allows third party developers to modify phone settings with user permissions.

    - The Android platform allows third party developers to run background tasks.

    Conclusion:

    - You can develop an application like Locale for the iPhone if your name is “Apple”. Otherwise you can’t.

    - Everybody can develop an application like Locale for Android phones.

  • http://nertzy.com Grant Hutchins

    Saying that it “wouldn’t” be possible implies that it is never going to be possible. I think that the answer is more along the lines of:

    It is not currently possible, when following Apple’s rules.

    Certainly it is possible on something like a jailbroken iPhone.

    So there’s nothing inherent about the iPhone that prevents this sort of app from ever being developed. Last year someone could have written a tip calculator for Android and said that it “wouldn’t even be possible on the iPhone”.

  • mokomoko

    “Other platforms have their own limitations. The openness of Android creates an environment for applications that just aren’t possible on other platforms.”

    OpenMoko has fewer limitations than Android — none, in fact. You aren’t even forced to use Java.

    In fact, it’s kind of hilarious (if it wasn’t so sad) to see people talking about the power of Java, which Alan Kay called “the most distressing thing to happen to computing since MS-DOS”.

  • justme

    @Bravia – Yes normal phones COULD do all that, but currently no phone does that automatically till this app came along for Android. Were talking a fully automatic setting change. Not some remember to change profile when I get to somewere.

    You miss the point, COULD doesn’t mean it will be done! Apple COULD allow Mac X to be installed on dell hardware, but they haven’t and wont at stage.

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  • jake

    @justme
    Yes, I think that is the important point. So far my phone couldn’t do that. You have to select the profile yourself.

    @mokomoko
    Openmoko would have been a better platform if they had made their phones appeal to mainstream customers and polished their work. It still has fragmentation & portability problems so far. Yes, Android loses lots of flexibility compared to Openmoko (ie. your java comment), but I think Google is trying to strike a good balance so that Android can survive commercially & still is flexible enough for most developers.

    For people leaving the comments about the “not possible” bit, they were talking specifically about the iPhone. I know WinMo had a similar program called phoneAlarm. Don’t have to read too much into it, it is obvious they are referring to the limitations of the current iPhone SDK.

  • Spinlock

    Facts:

    - The unofficial iPhone SDK allows modification of all phone settings.

    - The unofficial iPhone SDK allows background applications.

    - The unofficial iPhone SDK allows kernel extensions.

    - The official and unoffical iPhone SDKs allow (even force) native code execution.

    - The Android platform forces developers to use Java.

    Conclusion:

    - To those willing to jailbreak, the iPhone will be the more responsive, more capable system.

    I was worried myself when I heard about Android – a google attempt at a linux based phone platform? But then I heard it was all Java, and my buyers remorse was replaced with bitter sweet relief. No emulators? No easy porting of any existing non Java nix apps? What a total waste :[ Guess I’m still holding out for the linux multi-touch EVDO Tegra platform.

  • sleebus.jones

    Sad little whiny iPhone fanbois. You just don’t get it do you?

    G1 = it just works (tee hee)
    iPhone = works if you hack it (if the app is out there) and after you put your warranty at risk.

    Obvious winner: G1, the iPhone if you’re blind, stupid and ignorant.

  • justme

    @Spinlock = What are you on about?

    So to do what the Android can do out of the box, you have to go jailbreak your phone so you can run ‘unoffical’ software? Cause apple won’t allow you to out of the box?

    Why are you even reading this? go read apple.com

  • Mike

    Carlos still waiting for Linux to take over the desktop too? Ha! Java and Linux are still not primetime tools. And have they come up with a biz model yet? O wait, I remember: give away crappy software for free, charge through the nose for support, close up shop and go back to teaching students (they are the only naïve ones who will listen to you).

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  • gman

    Mike, please, shut your mouth and don’t embarrass yourself. Linux is not some company or corporation that COULD have a business model. It is a free foundation, and most applications are free because their developers want them to be free, not because it is their “business model”.

    Linux is not trying to take over anything, when are you lamos going to understand that? It is already dominating on servers and even getting bigger in desktops, but it is not the same as windows or mac, and has never tried to be.

    And hearing about your complaints about java just makes me laugh at your ignorance and incompetence. Java IS NOT THE SAME THING as C++, delphi or any other compilable language. Just like assembler is not the same as php. YES, assembler is like 500 times faster than php and perhaps 10 times faster than java, but that’s not the point. There is a reason for creation of high level languages and speed is not the only thing that is important in development of applications.

    And android’s choice for using java for its apps is just perfect. It is the only feasible way to make all of the applications directly (without porting) compatible with ANY device running android, whether it is running a qualcomm or intel processor, whether it has any special processor features or not, and so on and so on.

    So go buy some another overpriced and overhyped piece of garbage with a picture of an apple on it and don’t consider yourself with things your cannot comprehend.
    Apple’s bitch…

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