Whither not Android

I just returned from another conference talking about my work with the ARIS platform. Open Ed is a great conference with a fun group of people and I had a nice time. As with every conference presentation about ARIS, we were asked this one question by several people afterwards.

Do you have an Android client?

Just to shortcut for anyone who also has the same question, the answer is

No, not right now. It would seem technically feasible, but we have very limited resources. Do you know anyone who wants to make one for us and you?

And in the sense that there ever is an official ARIS position, that is it. If someone needs it badly enough, it will likely get built. For myself, the answer goes a little bit deeper and I hope it’s something that may shed light on the underlying issue that drives this question to be asked everywhere we go.

To be sure, I empathize with the question (especially from people who have an Android phone and simply want to play ). This isn’t about me being tired of hearing the question, just that I’ve been working on some solutions that aren’t in the usual list of bullet points and I never have enough time to describe this at those presentations. The question about platforms is a very important question for educators. At its root, it’s about

Uniformity and equality of access.

One of the big unanswered questions for rolling out mobile stuff to students is making sure everyone can participate. Although mobile phones as a generic technology are nearly ubiquitous, not all phones are created equal. The same thing goes for computers, but a middle ground centered around the web browser seems to have practically gone a long way towards a solution in the recent past.

With mobile I think the assumption is that the smartphone as a category of device represents the eventual means of uniform access. Thus developing for uniformity of access means providing

  1. a mobile web app, or
  2. clients for iOS, Android, Blackberry, and Nokia. I should note that we get far fewer requests for the latter two.

To my mind, this line of reasoning often sounds realistic only so long as it’s hypothetical.


The first bit of realism is already known by many. The fragmentation of the Android OS ecosystem. This recent report by Michael Degusta lays out very clearly how unlikely it is that a user with even a very new Android device will have access to a recent Android OS. And that says nothing of the hardware differences between devices or even the hardware buttons. The lowest common denominator that one must try to hit when writing for a “any Android players are welcome” scenario is very far behind the state of the art in this rapidly changing OS arena. Even something as simple and popular as Netflix cannot roll out for the Android platform without major caveats regarding which subset of the ecosystem can play.

No matter what hardware I could get for what price, I would worry that I was backing myself into a tight corner if I went Android.

Apple, though often besmirched for forcing users into an upgrade cycle, presents a rare moment of stability in the mobile ecosystem. The more than two year old iphone 3GS is selling well as a capable, fully-supported, new device. I’ve never before had a mobile that didn’t feel like total junk two years after the fact and that retained any modicum of manufacturer support in the interim.

Service Contracts

The other reason why the above argument for uniformity of access seems hypothetical doesn’t really have anything to do with Android or any other OS, but with the high price of smartphone service contracts. In the US at least, keeping these devices connected remains rather expensive, prohibiting access to large segments of society. Recent estimates have adoption at somewhere near 1/3 of adult Americans with teens slightly ahead. I’ve been making ARIS games for two and a half years now, mobile games in general somewhat longer, and my salary places me somewhat above the median in the state, but only this last week did a smartphone contract become a reasonable expense.

Internet service, mobile or otherwise, is one of the least consumer friendly sectors of the modern marketplace. I have lost pretty much any hope of it being simple or cheap any time soon. I wouldn’t feel like I was providing a good option for uniform access if I were still requiring students (or anyone else) to have a service contract with a mobile provider.

Ipod Touch

So to me, uniformity of access means confronting many situations where I can’t expect the devices (or maybe their connectivity) to already be in everyone’s pockets regardless of OS. Enter the ipod touch. While not feature complete with the iphone, the ipod touch makes it possible for me to guarantee access across the board. A little funding along with some duct tape and bailing wire make it possible to fill the gaps. I’ve written a guide to some of the specifics in relation to ARIS games if anyone’s interested. Strangely enough, the hardest feature of the iphone to make up for in my use of ipod touches has been the mute switch.

As a result, in my mobile work at UNM, I have been able to plan for the most groundbreaking mobile possibilities I can think of, allowing those with the most popular smartphones to participate at will and cheaply providing devices and infrastructure for those without. To me, that is what uniformity of access is really about. If I were in a position to try to guarantee access to the innovation presented generally by mobile on a broader scale in a practical way at UNM, I would seek to subsidize these Apple devices for our students long before worrying about producing cross-platform software.

My situation is not identical to that of others’, and these arguments don’t prevent ARIS (theoretically or practically) from having an Android client. I would be happy, all things being equal, if I could answer yes to that oft asked question. But if you’re looking to provide uniform access, you can sometimes find solutions if you look beyond the simple bullet points.