From Windows to Android with Glassboard

Earlier this year I got an offer I couldn't refuse. Several friends and former co-workers of mine were forming a company named Sepia Labs, and they asked me to join them. They planned to create a mobile group sharing app, and they wanted me to develop the Android version.

I've been itching to get into mobile development for a long time, but I didn't even own an Android, let alone know how to develop for one. Yet there was no way I could turn down the chance to learn mobile development while working with people I know and respect.

So I joined Sepia Labs, and we immediately set out to design a different kind of mobile group sharing app, one that values privacy above all else. The end result is Glassboard, which we launched today for Android and iPhone, and will soon be available for Windows Phone 7. I'm really proud of what we accomplished with Glassboard, and I hope you'll give it a try (and after you get it, this post will help you get started).

Now, I can tell you that switching to Android wasn't easy after almost two decades of Windows development. I had to learn a new language (Java), a new IDE (Eclipse), a new platform (Android) and a new programming mindset (mobile) in a very short time. Oh, and just to make it harder, I decided to do it all on a Mac. I guess you could say I was looking for a challenge :)

And a challenge it definitely was.

The first challenge was trading my iPhone for an Android. I've used an iPhone for several years, and my new Android felt unpolished and geeky by comparison. But I slowly warmed to it, and now I love my Android so much that on the rare occasion I pick up my iPhone I curse it for not having a back button.

The second challenge was learning Java. My usual approach to learning new things is to just jump in and get my hands dirty, but I decided not to do that with Java. Instead, before I wrote any code I read a ton of books on the language (my favorites were this one and this one). I had Java books all over the place – on my desk, next to my bed, in my car, and in every bathroom of the house. I wanted to really understand the language before I used it so I could design Glassboard correctly (and not have to redesign it a dozen times as I learned more about Java). Surprisingly, I liked Java right away. It does feel a little too object-oriented sometimes, and it was hard getting used to garbage collection and the C-like syntax, but it made sense to me. It's a very well thought out programming language.

Next I had to figure my way around Eclipse so I could actually write some Java code. Like Nick Farina, I absolutely hated Eclipse at first. I despised its strange, overloaded user-interface. I made up new swear words as I stumbled around trying to decipher its overwhelming array of menu items. But I've definitely grown to appreciate Eclipse. It has some incredibly powerful features that I haven't seen elsewhere, and it rarely gets in my way – in fact, it actually helps me write better code. And funny thing is, when I work on FeedDemon now, I wish that Delphi had the features I've gotten used to in Eclipse.

I thought my biggest challenge would be switching to the mindset of a mobile developer, but that hasn't been nearly as hard as I expected. I've written for years about simplicity, killing features and doing away with options, all of which are requirements for mobile development. Mobile development forces you to focus on exactly what your software needs to do, and I really enjoy that.

But developing specifically for Android has been a huge challenge. There's an awful lot to learn – intents, activities, AsyncTasks, XML layouts, services, BroadcastReceivers and on and on and on. Once you wrap your head around everything it all makes sense and fits together well, but getting to that point doesn't come quickly. And as is always the case, the thing that takes the most time is learning your way around all the gotchas. If you're just getting started with Android development, be prepared to spend a lot of time on StackOverflow!

Of course, I can't write my first post about Android without mentioning its supposed "fragmentation" problem. It is a problem, but it's mostly blown out of proportion. Desktop developers have always had to create software that works across different OS versions, different devices and different screen sizes, so the fact that you have to do that on Android isn't a big deal. But it is a big deal when different Android devices handle things differently – video playback and recording, for example, are challenging due to device differences, and getting video streaming to work reliably across devices feels impossible (as Netflix discovered).

All in all, learning so much new stuff in such a short time has been both thrilling and exhausting. I'm finally doing mobile development, something I've wanted to do for years. But take it from me: if someone offers you a job that requires switching from Windows to Android development and learning it all in a few months, stock up on the caffeine – you're going to need it!

PS: Hopefully this post explains why it's been so long since there was a new build of FeedDemon. I am still working on FeedDemon, and a new release is already underway.