Reference Platforms, Please!

Maybe you work at a device manufacturer that has come up with a new form factor for Android. Perhaps you have a spherical display, or a display that is a Möbius strip, or something like that. You are working with Google to ensure that Android has first-class support for your new form factor, addressing tough questions like “where do the status bar and nav bar go when the screen has no edges?”.

Eventually, you’re probably going to want apps on those devices, beyond those that your staff and your contracted partners create to show off your edgeless displays.

The problem is that Android apps might not work well on your form factor “out of the box”. You need to decide how to handle that scenario.

One option is to go with an opt-in model. Apps distributed through the Play Store are not eligible for your form factor unless they do something to say that they should be compatible with edgeless displays. For example, they might need a <uses-feature android:name="android.hardware.screen.edgeless" /> element in their manifest. The good news is that developers are unlikely to opt into your form factor without having tested it. The bad news is that few developers will do so quickly, meaning that your form factor’s corner of the Play Store will be rather empty.

But if you want to say that all apps on the Play Store are automatically available for your form factor, it is incumbent on you to ensure that every developer is in position to test on that form factor. Otherwise, you are just hoping that your own compatibility testing is sufficient and that users will not be faced with lots of apps that fail on your edgeless display for one reason or another.

You might offer an emulator, either something custom-made or perhaps an emulator image for the standard Android SDK emulator. That is better than nothing. However, emulators only emulate so well. Given that most desktop and notebook screens are neither spherical nor Möbius strips, they will have difficulty representing your form factor well, even in an emulated fashion. While this might be part of your developer support plan, it cannot be the only option.

Of course, you could hope that developers are so enamored with your edgeless displays that they pay the 1,770 USD price tag for one of their own. Frankly, that is unrealistic and somewhat exclusionary (“we only want rich developers!”).

Ideally, you would release a reference platform for that form factor. It would be reasonably priced and show off the critical feature but perhaps is not something that most consumers would want. For example, it would need your edgeless display, but you might go with cheap camera modules and offer only modest RAM and storage. Instead of a case made of gold-pressed latinum the way your high-end device is, perhaps the reference platform is just plastic. You might even skip the headphone jack. For the purposes of many developers, these cost-cutting measures do not matter all that much, as the developers’ goal is to confirm that their apps can “go edgeless” and delight your users. And, sure, some consumers will snap up a reference platform device on eBay, but few of them are likely to have spent the money for the high-end device anyway.

If reviewers and consumers conclude that your device is cool but has few apps that work well on it, that is going to depress sales of your device and cast doubt on the form factor overall. Form factors are tough sells to developers — for example, Google’s biggest TV success is the one that didn’t involve apps on a new form factor (Chromecast). Releasing a new form factor without a clear plan for ensuring that any developer can test on that form factor is going to be trouble.

Regardless, I wish you luck with your new form factor!

Unless yours involves a screenless device that users interact with via a series of high-pitched whistles. I draw the line there.

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