Pop quiz, hotshot: you leave a lofty position at Google to launch your own innovative mapping app – which platform do you set up on first? If you said ‘Android’, you failed. It’s the logical answer, but the wrong one. Why? Because, according to the Google horse’s mouth, Android suffers from too many hardware fragmentation problems.
Nothing new there, perhaps, but when a man who used to head up the development department at Google develops for iOS before Android because of that, you know something’s amiss.
Recce, Steady, Go
The ex-Googler in question is Rian Liebenberg, formerly the web giant’s Engineering Director. Along with ex-Playstation boss Ian Hetherington, Liebenberg has just launched Recce, a mapping app that takes a vastly different approach to the mapping battle currently raging between iOS and Android.
Recce is unlike any digital map you’ve ever seen, and Hetherington’s gaming roots are the reason: originally, Recce was going to be solely a gaming platform, before the two realised it was far bigger than that.
And what is it? In this initial iteration, it’s a faithfully recreated version of central London, rendered in beautiful SimCity-esque graphics. Cars chug along the roads, trains speed along the various overground tracks and boats sail down the Thames.
It’s glorious to look at and, despite the fully-rotating 3D, is whippier than any other mapping app you’ll see because the whole of London is a one-time download. As long as you’ve got the space (125MB), it’s all there.
And what’s all there is of a similar stock to Google Maps: it’s got landmarks, directions, and venue information for thousands of bars, museums, restaurants, galleries and coffee shops. Recce’s looking to fill this with information from Twitter, as well as other apps, when the APIs launch – Hetherington’s hoping Foursquare and location-based games will also make their way into Recce’s world.
Don’t live in London? Recce’s scalable, and if it’s popular enough, the team can and will reproduce anywhere on Earth in the app’s cartoon style.
The Android problem
But Recce’s technical swishness is where the problem lies. “We run very close to the metal to get this kind of performance,” says Hetherington, “and that means compatibility across devices is more of an issue.”
Recce runs seamlessly on the iPhone and iPad, but recreating its speed and fluidity on a myriad Android handsets has proved too big of an ask, even for a Google engineer to muster, in time for launch.
“We do have a working Android build, but given some of the device fragmentation, we couldn’t guarantee we were going to have a great android experience on every single implementation,” concedes Liebenberg.
“The hardware fragmentation problem in Android made it more complex for us, so we decided to hold it back.” I was taken aback by this; cast free of his previous contractual obligations, the honest truth about Google’s biggest mobile problem came spilling out.
“That’s bold of an ex-Google man to say,” I said.
“It’s true, though,” Liebenberg confirmed.
And it is. You don’t need to be an Apple fanboy to acknowledge and talk about the problems that Google’s had in convincing developers about the ease of Android developing.
It’s never really been about audience size: Android wins that battle. It’s about the problems found in developing for a gazillion different devices with different resolutions and processors, and running across several different software iterations.
Liebenberg isn’t the first developer who’s told me this – it’s a wider issue than this specific app. Recce will, eventually, launch on Android, but it’s that delay that’s still causing a rift between iOS and Android.
I wrote a piece a while back explaining some of the reasons why iOS will always be developers’ go-to platform, but having Android’s biggest problems dragged up and confirmed by someone who used to be in Google’s inner sanctum? That’s pretty damning.
Recce is available now for iOS: Download it here