iOS vs. Android – programmer first impressions

I did my first “Hello World” style Android app yesterday, and while it’s only a first impression I wanted to share my first impressions.

My background is that I’ve been a professional Mac software developer for about 15 years and a hobbiest Mac and Apple developer since I was a wee lad. I used to work at Metrowerks, makers of CodeWarrior, back in the day when CodeWarrior was “the thing” for Mac software development. So I’ve not only used developer tools, I’ve made them. That all said, I don’t have a lot of iOS experience from a developer perspective because I’ve only so much time in a day and just didn’t have time nor a job that required it. But that’s changing and so into the abyss I go. I say this because yes, my initial Android experience is going to be tainted by the world I’m coming from. I’m not saying the new world is bad, just different.

Java

Android uses the Java programming language. I haven’t touched Java in over a decade, and I know the language has evolved. First thing I did was pick up a book on the language. I bought Learn Java for Android Development by Jeff Friesen. The book has NOTHING to do with Android itself, it’s a pure language book. But I choose this book because the book is geared towards Android so it doesn’t waste time talking about matters irrelevant to Android, like AWT. I didn’t give the book a hard-read, nor did I bother with doing much of the exercises because I don’t feel I need it (famous last words?). I’ve used Java in the past, I’ve been programming for quite a while, and the book is geared towards someone who is starting from scratch. So talking about Generics? It’s akin to C++ templates so I just needed to get the details and differences. Container classes? Just give me an overview of what’s there, I don’t need to read 10 pages about all the various methods and what they do (that may come later for reference).

That all said, there’s a lot that’s changed in Java since I last really used it and I think a lot of the changes are good. Being able to “inline” a lot of things, nest classes, anonymous classes… it’s nice to just define your “callback” right there as you go along. It’s nice to have a language that’s more pure OO than C++ (Objective-C is pretty good at being true OO). It’s nice to see the library expanded, and things like Generics added. Yes there’s a lot of syntax I’ll have to get used to, but that’s how it is when you switch from one language you’ve used for years to one you haven’t. I should be alright.

But while the language is fine, the IDE is another story.

Eclipse

Oh…. I don’t like.

You see, every platform does things they way they do it because they believe they have something different and better. Mac OS X is one thing, Windows is another, Linux another… and everyone does their thing differently. Sure most of the core concepts are the same, but little details of interactions and how widgets work and the parts mesh vary. And Java apps seem to like to do things their own way, perhaps with a Windows-bias since many Java developers are Windows-based. Coming from the elegant world of the Mac user experience? Using Eclipse feels bizarre and klunky. I’m sure I’ll get used to it, but it still feels strange and like a step backwards in terms of human-computer interaction and experience.

One thing that really bugs me is I don’t like being forced into a tabbed single-window-only interface. I’m not that into tabbed interfaces, but I have come to appreciate when tabs are good and when they are not — for me. Apple’s really pushed a single-window mode of being on Mac OS X, and for the most part that’s alright. What I find I like is the ability to exist how I want to exist. Sometimes I want two windows because I need to arrange the content as I need to to do my work. Other times I want these “windows” to be grouped together and thus having the content in multiple tabs within the same window makes the most sense. I like options. If Eclipse allows me to escape this tabbed world, I haven’t found it yet.

Tools Install

You want to develop for the Mac? These days it’s pretty much Xcode. You download, you install, and off you go. All the apps you need, compilers, libraries, documentation, everything. It’s simple and rather painless.

To develop for Android? I had Eclipse installed from a prior thing I was working on, but now I had to get another version. So download that. Then I have to download the Android SDK and put that somewhere and tell Eclipse about it. Then I have to actually download and install all the API’s and tools for developing Android apps. Then more configuring. Finally, I can get going. What a pain. I don’t really blame anyone for this because the nature of the beast is so open, requires things from different vendors, and there’s a lot of flexible options. I do think options are good, but I also think there’s something to be said for providing a setup to get new folks started. It’s a high bar of entry, and I can only wonder how a total programming newbie would handle this. If Google could provide a “one click download and install” that gets you going, that’d be awesome. Sure it may provide more than is needed, it may bias towards one product or SDK or something, but get the n00b going, then once they grok the world they can sort things out and streamline later.

Nevertheless, things are going.

First App

A friend sent me this blog posting on writing your first Android app. I figured I’d give it a try before I went through all the Getting Started stuff at the Android Developer website. First, this blog posting was great because it gave better instructions on how to get the tools downloaded, installed, and configured. Thank you for that!

But as I worked through this, it helped me see how spoiled I am in the MacOSX/iOS world, especially with how integrated the developer toolchain is.

Designing the user interface. So, I have to hand-write XML? Holy crap… I thought we were in the 21st century! Oh sure there’s a little tool to work it, but it sounds like no one uses it and it’s very rudimentary. That everyone just prefers to edit the XML by hand. Man, that’s…. unacceptable in this day and age.

Then to hook your GUI into your code, you have to do all this manual labor in code to make it happen. Yes, I’m spoiled by the actions and outlets paradigms in Cocoa, where in my code I can just declare an IBAction or IBOutlet, then in Interface Builder just click and drag to hook everything up. It’s a small thing, but it’s there.

I do like Android Virtual Devices thing, where you can simulate any sort of device. That’s of course necessary, but it seemed to run a little smoother than the iPhone/iPad simulator.

As an aside, I got to learn about a cool prototyping/wireframing tool called balsamiq.  That app is way cool.

From here?

The first impression I’m left with? Android as a technology might be really advanced, but the developer experience is archaic. The toolset just feels really klunky, and I can see how spoiled I am with Apple’s tools.

That said, that’s the toolset and I will work with it. I’m sure I’ll get used to it and come to find things I love and things I hate. I’m still looking forward to delving deeper into the world of Android development. I’ve only begun and I’m sure my impressions will change, but first impressions are important and the impression I’ve been left with is one that desires more. Here’s hoping for the best.

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