in which telephone seems like entirely the wrong word



After years of resisting phone ownership followed by a few years of owning a 2003-era Nokia dumbphone, I finally decided to make the jump when the Nexus One was announced. I've got a strong distaste for systems that place arbitrary restrictions on their users, and while the Android OS itself doesn't have any, many Android phones before the Nexus One have had the carriers interfere with the user's control over their phone, though not to the same offensive degree as Apple. The Nexus One is sold directly through Google without giving the carriers a chance to sully it.

Daily Usage

The screen is just brilliant, and the 800x480 resolution means everything is sharp. The OS is very smooth and responsive. Having spent so long on a system where the keyboard is king and the mouse is only used in exceptional cases, switching to the inverse situation on the phone is a bit odd, but not as disorienting as you'd expect. Like any handheld keyboard, the Nexus's is bad for writing anything longer than a chat, but it's certainly no worse than the hardware keyboard on the old Zaurus I toy around with occasionally or the one on my Kindle. The built-in apps work great, and if you take the plunge to fully switch to GMail, it pretty much makes syncing your mailbox a solved problem.

nexus logo

There are a few nit picks like the color balance being a bit off on the camera, the way the face buttons don't trigger unless you push the upper half, and the fact that the built-in jabber client only supports a single account. But these are all pretty minor or easy to work around. The only thing that really bugs me about it is the fact that there's no ZeroConf implementation yet for the platform. But there are people working on this, so it's just a matter of time.

Oh, and using it to Talk?

It turns out you can also use the Nexus One to interface with the global legacy telephone system and make calls on that. Supposedly it has a very nice dual-mic noise suppression system for when you do this, but I've only made a handful of test calls so far. I got a data-only plan for half of what the regular voice+data plans go for and had planned to use Sipdroid to make VoIP calls with it, but then I realized I just don't make voice calls any more. So while there's a barely-noticeable delay with SIP calls over the 3G network, it really doesn't bother me. I also have used the Wired Tether app to hook up my laptop on the go and can confirm that calls via Skype sound fine too. So it's nice that T-Mobile isn't blocking that on a network level. They do seem to be the least-user-hostile of all the US carriers.

Update: Skype has released an Android version, which is now what I use for all my voice needs.

Hacking It

Of course once you get past the formalities, the question that matters to a hacker is how it feels to hack. I've only really gotten started with this, but my initial report is fairly positive. The official toolsets are either Eclipse or Ant, neither of which give me warm fuzzies, but luckily you can use Ant out of the box without getting exposed to the XML-editing ickiness.

garrett demo

Getting programs onto the device is pretty simple. Once your source is ready, you run ant debug, which produces a .apk package. You can use the adb (android debugger) program to load it up over USB, but since I keep leaving my USB cable various places, I prefer just scping it to my server and pointing my device's browser directly at the .apk. You can also use this to install dev builds of various apps before they have been uploaded to the Market.

The API seems pretty sane. Clearly a lot of thought has gone into the notion of supporting a single front-and-center application while allowing others to run in the background without impacting battery life and performance too severely. I've played a bit with the graphics tools, and they remind me a fair bit of Processing, which is a good thing. I haven't done much intricate UI work with a lot of buttons or menus, but that kind of stuff can be tedious even in the nicest environments.

Language of Choice

Since Dalvik (the Android VM) is based on the JVM, there's a whole host of languages that can run on it. Unfortunately, Dalvik is no Hotspot—it currently lacks JIT, and the GC is merely serviceable rather than astoundingly good like Hotspot's. The lack of a good GC makes using persistent data structures a real drag since they generate a lot of ephemeral garbage, so Clojure is not a good choice. The lack of JIT coupled with CPUs that are comparatively low-powered means that while JRuby runs, it's not altogether pleasant, especially considering the blitz with which regular apps perform. I've been told there is some low-hanging fruit for improving performance on Android, so this is likely to improve to a degree. Rhino, Python, Lua, Scala, and others work, (including, I'm told, even some legacy languages like Java, if you can imagine that) but I decided to try the less-traveled route with something called Duby.

Update: Duby has (thankfully) been renamed Mirah.

Duby is a language created by Charles Nutter, the head of the JRuby project. JRuby is an amazing feat in part because Ruby's object model is vastly different from what's natively available on the Java platform. By an astounding effort they've managed to put together a first-class Ruby implementation, but it does raise the question: what would a modern language look like that went with the grain of its host instead of violently against it? Duby is an attempt to answer that question.

The syntax of Duby is nearly identical to that of Ruby; it only adds type declarations to method definitions. Yes, that means it's statically-typed. While it has type inference, it's not Hindley-Milner-style, it's closer to Scala's. Locals get their types inferred, it's only arguments in method definitions that need hints. So far I keep forgetting this nearly every time I write a new method since it looks so close to Ruby otherwise, but I'm sure I'll get the hang of it. Closures are compiled into anonymous inner classes, and you can iterate over collections with blocks. Duby is also unique in that it literally has no runtime—its literals translate directly to ArrayLists and HashMaps, so once you've compiled, the code is more or less identical to what the Java compiler would have output.


So far I've only put together a couple toy apps: Hello World, and a graphics demo with a bouncing ball. Unfortunately, Duby is a very immature language, and it shows. Starting out I had to go to Charlie at nearly every turn with stack traces. Half the time it would be my fault, and half the time it would be something as-yet-unsupported by the compiler. But so far he's been able to turn around and bring in all the features I need, which has been quite amazing. I'm hoping to get a chance to dive into the compiler source myself and get to the point where I can add features I need with minimal guidance.

Adapting the Android build process to Duby was surprisingly easy. You redeclare the compile task to call the Duby compiler instead of javac, tell it to output its bytecode in the right directory, and the rest of it just falls into place.

My next plans are to add more interactivity to my graphics demo; I'd like to play with creating objects and applying motion rules to them; I hope to come up with something my two-year-old would get a kick out of. So far it's been a lot of fun and a great way to explore the capabilities of this remarkable device.

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