When robots attack

As Android’s share of the smartphone and tablet markets grows, so does its potential for pro AV applications. But as Tim Kridel explains, Android still has a few caveats.

David Snipp was recently at a Carphone Warehouse store, and what he saw surprised him.

“I was flabbergasted,” says Snipp, CEO of Stardraw, which specialises in AV software. “They must have had half a dozen Android tablets, ranging from £99 to £500. The message I got was, these Androids are coming along, there are a lot of them out there and the prices are cheap. So the writing is on the wall.”

In first quarter 2011, 35 percent of all smartphones sold worldwide ran the Android operating system (OS), according to Canalys, a research firm. That market share increases the chances that a client will request, or at least be interested in, using its employees' existing Android devices for AV tasks. 

For example, if all employees in a company already have a Android tablet — or an Apple iPad, for that matter — is it more cost-effective to put an AV control app on each one instead of installing a touch panel in every conference room? Touch Panel Control’s TPControl app for AMX systems targets that usage scenario for both Apple iOS and Android devices.

“The response to the Android app has been quite fabulous,” says Ben Flux, Touch Panel Control operations director. “Android is more user-friendly, and the high growth in its adoption is a fair indicator of the capabilities that the OS has.” 

Android tablets and smartphones also are serving as videoconferencing endpoints. One example is Polycom’s Telepresence m500 app, which runs on the Motorola XOOM and Samsung Galaxy Tab. Expect more such apps.

"We are working to port our SCOPIA Mobile endpoint on the Android platform,” says Vince Chavy, Radvision product management director. "Android is a fit for pretty much any application you can think about.”

(Relatively) Cheap and Easy

Although today there currently are far more AV apps available for iOS devices – which include the iPad and iPhone – it’s likely that the Android app selection eventually will be the largest. One reason is because Android devices are already available at a wider range of price points. The cheaper they are, the easier it is for enterprises to justify providing them to rank-and-file employees rather than just executives. The same business logic can apply to using Android tablets in lieu of purpose-built AV hardware, such as touch panels.

“For low-end commercial solutions, there probably will be more interest in Android devices than Apple,” says David Webster, CTO of RGB Communications, a U.K.-based distributor. “I suspect that’s because they’ll seen as cheaper, more disposable, maybe even less desirable and therefore not inclined to be stolen.”

Besides its large and rapidly growing installed base – including in the enterprise market – Android also appeals to AV vendors and integrators for its development flexibility. Over the past several months, Google has enhanced that flexibility with tools such as the Android Open Accessory Development Kit, which helps create hardware that can work with Android devices. The new tools could be particularly useful for the high-end residential AV market.

“There has always been great interest in Android, but I believe it has gone a couple of notches higher after the recent Google I/O Developers’ Conference, where Google announced Android@Home,” says Touch Panel Control’s Flux. “That Google will allow developers to build apps that bridge different home appliances – including AV systems – certainly opens a world of opportunities. With Google’s Project Tungsten – where a device runs both the Android OS and the Android@Home framework – we will see some wonderful integration of AV devices with a range of other home appliances.”

Some AV vendors now offer their own toolkits.

“We have a toolkit named BEEHD that runs on iOS and Android, allowing developers to build video-enabled applications,” says Radvision’s Chavy. “We provide the framework; they write the app.  We are seeing more and more demands for this type of vertical applications, [such as] telemedicine and first responders.”

The fragmentation problem

One fundamental difference between Android and iOS is the company behind each platform. (For a look at how the iPad fits into pro AV, see “AV, Meet the iPad” at www.inavateonthenet.net.) So far, Google has been far more lenient when it comes to allowing device vendors, software developers and other third parties customise the OS itself. 

This leeway has a downside: fragmentation. Unlike iOS, where there are only a handful of devices, the Android ecosystem has a far larger range of screen sizes and resolutions, vendor interpretations of the OS, processor capabilities and memory. These variables can make it challenging to develop an AV app that provides a consistently good user experience on any Android device. Videoconferencing is a prime example. 

“Each device has a different camera, different audio input and output and different screen size,” Chavy says. “It requires extra coding and a lot of testing to make sure that we support as many devices as possible.”

That’s an example of how Android’s fragmentation can increase the cost, hassle and lead time of developing an AV app, such as when it has to be tweaked multiple times for multiple devices so it can tap the widest possible market. Even then, there's no getting around the cost of developing a separate app for iOS because that market is too big to ignore.

For some developers, another drawback to both Android and iOS is the 30 percent royalty that Apple and Google charge basically for handling the credit card transaction when an app is purchased. For that role, they shouldn’t be charging more than about 5 percent, some developers say.

“The app store isn’t really marketing my product,” says Stardraw’s Snipp. “A standard dealer discount might be 20-30 points, but for that you expect them to market it, support it, distribute it.”

Forget apps?
Some AV vendors are trying to sidestep fragmentation and royalties by skipping apps altogether in favour of Web services, where the Android device's browser gives the user access to functions such as those that would be found in an AV touch panel. (The same strategy works for iOS devices, too.)

“With the power of HTML and Java Script, you can have a fantastic app experience using just using Web pages,” says Stardraw's Snipp. 

Although this “Web services” architecture relies on the browser, a constant wireless Internet connection isn't necessarily a must-have in order to use a Web site's HTML code. The newer HTML 5 provides additional options.

“You can store a manifest file, and that will cache all the files locally," Snipp says. "With HTML 5, you’ve got local storage, as well, and even a SQL database locally in your browser.”

Stardraw recently did a project in Dubai where it wall-mounted 42 iPod Touches, each displaying a single Web page. 

“It’s running locally,” Snipp says. “It’s not like navigating and browsing, waiting for it to pull down [pages] from the server. It’s just one HTML page, and you’re just animating between sections of that page. It’s responsive. It’s reliable.”

For integrators, Web services are noteworthy because they’re an opportunity to add value.

“The cool thing from the integrator point of view is that it’s so easy to customise," Snipp says. "It’s just HTML. If you can do a Web page, then you can do a control user interface.” 

For example, on the Dubai project, the client suddenly changed its mind and decided that user interface needed to have the same fonts, colours and other design elements as its Web site in order to have consistent branding. 

“Within an hour, we had completely redone the user interface to match their Web site," Snipp says. "If you were to do that through an app store, it would have taken weeks to change.”

The Apple alternative

App distribution is another big difference between Android and iOS. Although Apple and Google both have app stores, Apple has far more stringent policies for vetting and approving both developers and apps. That’s one reason why Android has had more malware-infected apps. If that problem persists, it could make some enterprises reluctant to widely deploy Android devices, cutting into the market for AV apps and Web services.

“Android’s ‘capabilities-based’ architecture does ensure that the OS controls what an application can or cannot do,” says Touch Panel’s Flux. “However, the capabilities-based architecture hasn’t been fool-proof, and some rogue applications have certainly raised questions on how secure Android is.”

One downside to Apple’s distribution model is that it’s effectively the only game in town – unless the user is willing to jailbreak its device just to get an app. That’s often the case with consumers, but it’s tough to envision an enterprise jailbreaking its employees’ iOS devices just to be able to use, say, an AV app. By giving developers more distribution freedom, Google helps make Android more attractive.

“Application developers have only one way to distribute their app: via the [Apple] App Store,” says Radvision’s Chavy. “If Apple decides to reject an app, you have no way out. This is stressful.”

Yet Chavy also is among the vendors that believe Apple’s app-review process is worth any headaches because it helps ensure a good user experience.

Since all apps are reviewed before going on the store, Apple ensures that the spirit of the user experience is kept,” Chavy says. “As an example, we had an app rejected because you could not start it when the iPad was in landscape. This was against the iPad philosophy. This has some serious drawback, but by doing this, Apple is raising the bar and forcing developers to produce great apps.”

The downside is that developers have less flexibility to customise the user experience. Giving them more freedom could help Google woo more developers.

“On the iPad, for example, you cannot auto-start an application when the iPad starts,” Chavy says. “You cannot lock the device to your app, which is handy if you want to use it in an enterprise to control a VC system for example, and you do not want your users to play Angry Birds on the device. With Android, you can lock the device to your app so that it serves your app, and nothing more.”

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