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Beyond iPhone and Android: 5 hot new platforms for developers

A long time ago in a mind-set far away, I spent a lunch with friends trying  to figure out what we’d do if we could reprogram our cellphones. Our ideas were,  in retrospect, lame. Maybe we would change the font on the dialer or come up  with a screensaver animation. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could get flying  toasters running on the screen of our cellphone?

The iPhone was still several years away when we came up with those ideas. The  millions of ways people would be reprogramming smartphones just a few short  years later was beyond our comprehension. The App Store and the effort of tens  of thousands of programmers changed that.

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The smartphone has proven that a marketplace for delivering code can appear  seemingly out of nowhere, and developers would have another choice for  showcasing their wares. It’s not that the App Store was new — you could develop  for Nokia, Windows Mobile, and Java phones long before it came along. But Apple  eased the process and provided enough features that made it worthwhile for  developers to start creating.

So when we say that some day in the possible near future you may be targeting  your apps at users’ shirt pockets, not what they put in them, you may think it’s  time for the straitjackets. But all it takes is a market. The technology is  already there — sort of.

To help you get a jump on these promising platforms, we did a little digging  in what might seem to be unlikely places. In many cases, raw APIs are already  well-established, ready for apps to exploit them. Scratch the surface, and  you’ll get an idea of the potential of porting your wares beyond the  smartphone/PC paradigm. You can bet the manufacturers of these products are  interested in establishing their own app ecology. And as we’ve seen with both  the PC and smartphone, the first to arrive is often the one whose app gets the  most sales.

Emerging development platform No. 1: Your car

The computers buried in your car are better platforms for  developing software than your cellphone. While car batteries do run down and  cars do run out of gas, they’re still more reliable sources of electricity than  that tiny battery in your smartphone. The dashboard is already engineered to be  at the driver’s fingertips, and much of the car is already accepting digital  commands through the OBD-II (On-Board Diagnostics) interface built into all new  cars. Though you can forget your smartphone when you go on a road trip, you  can’t forget your car. Automobiles are made for apps, and their manufacturers  know it.

Safety comes into play when developing apps for cars, and this is among car  builders’ greatest detractions in opening up their platforms. While people can  manage to change radio stations while driving, changing a CD isn’t nearly as  safe. Plus, some argue, even the best-designed hands-free interfaces can’t solve  the cognitive limitations of the human brain. The driver’s brain should put  driving first; even talking on a hands-free phone can be suspect.

That’s just the surface. Computer programmers aren’t known for building  crash-free products, and in the auto business, the word “crash” has much more  ominous overtones. It’s one thing to let the curious programmer monkey around  with the OBD-II interface to suck down statistics about the combustion  efficiency of the engine, but what if that same programmer stumbles onto a  switch that changes an important setting irrevocably? Curiosity may not always  kill the cat, but it only takes a few high-profile mistakes to sully the  platform.

That may be why Ford is moving slowly with opening up its Sync platform for developers. You can download apps for  interacting with Twitter (OpenBeak) or Pandora, but you won’t find thousands of  choices. Most of the few on hand revolve around the radio, and the company is  introducing Roximity, an app might have been named by Scooby-Doo but is  actually used for identifying location-dependent daily deals.

General Motors is opening up an API for its OnStar service, a wireless tool  that can track your car, unlock it, and even start it remotely. There’s already  an iPhone app, RemoteLink, and all this power could be yours if you’re accepted  into the program. Just write to developers@onstar.com. The most commonly cited  application is RelayRides.com, a company that helps you rent out your car when  you’re not using it.

This platform will expand, as car manufacturers become more confident and  users become more welcoming. It doesn’t hurt that a number of robot-driven cars  are appearing, leaving the humans in the vehicle free to monkey around with the  latest apps.

Emerging development platform No. 2: Your television

The Internet may rule the world during the day when people are connected to  laptops, but it fades when people retire to the living room. Streaming services  like Netflix and Hulu are making inroads, but they’re still just showing  unadorned video. We’re a long way from a compellingly interactive item.

The most ambitious incursion of developers into the living room may be along  a path paved by Google, which has had only limited success pushing its Google TV  box to people on couches. Logitech and Sony manufacture them, and the API offers  several avenues to get your code in front of people’s eyes.

The simplest way to the TV may be to write a Web app. The TV’s browser is a  relatively new version of Linux Chrome, the WebKit browser that also handles  Flash 10.1 content. There are small changes, and you can detect them by looking  at the UserAgent string. Geolocation, for instance, isn’t available.

If your website works well on Chrome, it can work well on the TV. The main  challenge is dealing with the size of the screen and the UI. While many modern  televisions show 1080p signals, with 1,080 lines of pixels, not many eyes can  make out the small differences. You can’t pack text with the same density as you  can on a monitor that sits 20-some inches from a face.

Google is not limiting itself to HTML5 applications. Android developers will be able to target  the living room in the future by including a separate layout. Google suggests  targeting “large” tablets because the “apparent size of the Google TV screen  turns out to be only slightly different from a mobile phone’s screen.”

There are other opportunities. XBMC is a great, open source distribution meant to turn a PC  into a television command center. Its core is written in C++, but many of the add-on scripts are written in Python.  Perhaps the easiest way to develop content is to create a website that delivers  the content in a format that’s easy for XBMC to scrape.

Other TVs offer simpler options. For example, Samsung has an API that accepts HTML5 content. It’s like building a Web page, but on a bigger  screen for someone who is farther away. It’s available on some TVs and Blu-ray  players. Yahoo has a similar item, complete with a widget marketplace where people can buy your wares.

Not all platforms are as open. Apple TV, for instance, is willing to accept  encrypted content that mirrors your iPad screen via AirPlay. It’s not the same as writing your own code, but  maybe someday, Apple will open up a TV App Store.

Emerging development platform No. 3: Your clothing

It may be made of cloth today, but there’s no reason why your garments can’t  be one of the next great development platforms. We take our clothes everywhere,  and electronics are now small enough to be sewn in without being noticeable.

There are already early experiments in garment hacking. Scott eVests and jackets are prized because they were  designed to hide wires. You can put your iPod in a pocket, and the wires  carrying your earbuds are threaded through channels so that they pop out of the  cloth near your ears. They’re not constantly getting tangled or misplaced –  unless you forget where you left your jacket.

One jacket from Hammacher Schlemer has a “five-button control system woven into the outer sleeve” so  that you can change tracks without taking off your gloves or removing your iPod  from your pocket. The buttons lock up after a few seconds to prevent an errant  bump from shifting items.

The simplest way to experiment may be with one of the Anduino chips embraced  by the Maker community. The LilyPad chip set is already designed to be sewn into clothes;  just add LEDs and the right software.

The first adopters may be people who want to program their clothes to change  color or patterns to music, mood, weather, or, say, a command sent by the  advertising company that purchased the space on your sweatshirt. These apps will  be able to communicate with people near us, and they’ll enable a new twist to  the fashion industry, with artists being able to upload new patterns and wearers  able to swap them. People wouldn’t ask where you bought that shirt; they would  just download the pattern from their friend at that moment. The friend might  even get a commission.

That’s just cosmetic. Our clothes are always with us, so they may make a  better place to put our electronic wallet than in our cellphones. Apps could  follow our schedule and zap us if we forget an important taks, like taking our  medicine. We may not feel the rumble from a cellphone, but our clothes are much  closer.

Emerging development platform No. 4: The electrical grid

In much of the Western world, electricity is so stable that it’s boring: Plug  your device into the wall and it works. A month later you get a bill, and after  you pay it — as they say in the country music business — the circuit remains  unbroken.

But there’s no reason why we can’t enjoy a much richer, more sophisticated  electrical grid with flexible pricing, self-healing circuits, and an app market  full of opportunities. Filtrete, for instance, offers a programmable thermostat that is Wi-Fi-enabled and ready for  remote access.

Many appliances are already integrated. The X10 standard has been widely used  for home automation for some time, and libraries for languages like Java are common. Some  controllers, such as Insteon, have built-in Web servers that let you interact  with devices by POSTing data to the URLs.

There are more complex APIs. The ZigBee standard is growing increasingly  common because it offers a more elaborate, energy-savvy API for making decisions about  energy use.

Some areas of the world are already experimenting with flexible meters that  charge different amounts when electricity is cheaper and when it is more  expensive. In the future, your refrigerator may come with an app that watches  this metric and cools down the freezer when the power is as cheap as possible.  Your air conditioner, furnace, oven, and home Hadoop cluster may do the same.

Changing the price for the electricity is just the beginning. There’s no  reason why the home electrical grid can’t have a fair amount of intelligence  inside it. Instead of dumb outlets, we can have nodes that watch the flow of  electricity through the outlets. If a wire shorts out or a kid chews through a  cable, the smart outlets will be able to shut down the instant surge in  power.

Emerging development platform No. 5: Retail

In many ways, the computing world has already split into a taxonomy of  acronyms for use by venture capitalists. The B2B world helps businesses  communicate with each other, the C2C helps consumers talk with each other, and  the B2C helps the B sell to the C.

The app world should also split along these lines on the smartphones; when  the software finds a larger, more prominent platform, the apps will only get  more interesting and, in some cases, more annoying.

The movie “Minority Report” gave us a glimpse of digital advertisements that  adjust themselves as people walk by. Some companies are building smart  billboards that use cameras to guess the age or gender of pedestrians, and  others use Microsoft’s Kinect platform to let people interact with the screen. A  company called After-Mouse married the Kinect with Windows API to build a  retail platform. The Kinect’s infrared sensors work through many forms of glass,  making it possible to set up the displays behind shop windows. They interact  even when the store is closed, a feature that might be used to take orders.

The devices don’t need to be limited to advertisements. One simple  application can help guide humans to what they want to buy. Already some  warehouses have LEDs that flash to guide the humans packing orders. A store can  have a similar system that interacts with any app to help people find products  without searching and searching. Think of how much easier it could be to shop at  Costco.

It’s important to recognize that the retail API does not need to interact  with the human. Cellphones constantly broadcast their ID numbers in the clear,  and some stores track their customers to help plan store layouts. A savvy API  might simply detect and identify the human from the cellphone signals, then  reconfigure the store experience.

This retail ecology will begin to flourish when there’s a good, open standard  that makes it simpler for companies to be certain that their interactive display  software will appear correctly in the stores, malls, and bus stops.