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Google's Tough Search for New Platforms on Display at I/O

05/27/2015 | 01:56pm US/Eastern
By Alistair Barr 

Google Inc.'s Android is the world's most popular operating system for smartphones. This week, Google will make a renewed push for developers to work with other flavors of Android, for wearable devices, Internet-connected TVs, cars and virtual reality.

Google's annual I/O conference begins Thursday amid intense competition for developer attention. Apple Inc.'s developer conference kicks off June 8.

In April, Microsoft Corp. said it would make it easy for developers to modify their Android and Apple mobile apps to run on Windows smartphones, PCs, tablets or Xbox consoles. Facebook Inc. opened its Messenger service to outside developers in March.

"The last platform transition from PCs to phones enabled Apple to become the largest company on the planet. Who is going to benefit the most from the next one?" said Ben Schachter, an analyst at Macquarie.

He said Google needs "more traction" with developers in areas beyond phones and tablets.

Developers will be reluctant to build apps if Google can't attract users for its new platforms and devices. Without lots of apps, platforms tend to wither. Developers lost interest in Google's Glass wearable computer after sales lagged amid concerns about the device's high price, poor battery life and a privacy backlash.

Android Wear, a broader operating system for wearable devices that was a big focus at last year's I/O conference, has had mixed results so far. The success of the I/O developer conference will likely be measured over the long term by how many developers eventually use Google's new platforms.

At I/O, Google plans to release an early version of its latest Android operating system, currently known as M. There will be new permissions that give users more control over information they share with Google and developers from apps and games, moving closer to Apple's more conservative, user-friendly approach, according to two people familiar with the matter. Fingerprint-reading capabilities for Android devices may be added, also following Apple's lead, according to a BuzzFeed report.

Many sessions at the two-day conference focus on extending Android into the home, through Android TV, game development for bigger TV screens, wearables and virtual reality. The living room, where Android-based Internet-connected TVs and set-top boxes are morphing into mini-gaming consoles, will be featured in 10 sessions.

Hardware manufacturers including Samsung Electronics Co., LG Electronics Inc. and Asustek Computer Inc. have churned out smartwatches that run Android Wear, but sales have been lackluster. Through May 19, research firm Canalys said more than one million Android Wear watches shipped since they went on sale last year. By comparison, the firm estimates Apple will ship 20 million Apple Watches this year.

A search for Android Wear apps in the Google Play app store this week turned up 221. By contrast, there are more than 5,000 apps for the Apple Watch, according to App Annie, which tracks such things.

Toronto-based software firm Normative Design is developing an undisclosed Apple Watch app for a client, but isn't working on any Android Wear apps, according to founder Matthew Milan.

When Apple launches a new product, it is a single device that works well with Apple's operating system and comes with support for developers, Mr. Milan said. Android devices are made by different companies and may not include all the features needed to support an app, meaning fewer users will access the app, he said.

Normative is working on an Android mobile-payments project for a client, but it will work only on the Samsung Galaxy S6 phone initially. The reason: Security requirements vary because Android phones often have different chipsets and other hardware, Mr. Milan said.

"Android devices have different hardware and the OS is often different," Mr. Milan said. "It's more variable and it makes it harder to address a broad market."

Write to Alistair Barr at alistair.barr@wsj.com

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