The mystery of the disappearing Android developer


If you've been an Android power user for long, odds are you've heard of Ander Webbs and his ADWLauncher application.

ADWLauncher was one of the first custom Android launchers -- programs that replace the default Android environment and let you make all sorts of changes to how your phone looks and works.

Back in the days of Android 2.x, ADWLauncher was huge. It racked up millions of downloads and became a must-have item in countless users' arsenals.

Then, all of a sudden, everything went quiet. ADW -- which was known for its regular updates and frequent feature expansions -- didn't receive a single update in all of 2011. (The premium version of the program, ADWLauncher EX, received just one significant update that year, in May.) The Android world was changing fast, with the introduction of Android 3.0 Honeycomb that February and Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich that October. And ADW was quickly getting left behind.

Ander Webbs

After 17 months of virtual silence, Ander Webbs emerged from the shadows this fall and released a new version of ADWLauncher. He's hoping the newly updated 4.x-level version of his program can reclaim its glory and compete with current-day frontrunners like Nova and Apex Launcher.

So where has Ander Webbs been for the last year and a half -- and why did he stop all work on ADW at the height of its success? I reached out to Webbs at his home in Madrid to fill in the blanks and find out what he's up to now.

Here's an edited version of our conversation.

JR: You were a pioneering force in the Android launcher game and had one of the most popular launchers of the 2.x era -- and then you disappeared for a while. What were you up to over the last year or so?

Ander Webbs: This is a long story made short: A Californian-Chinese company wanted to acquire and further improve ADW, including hiring myself, and at the end it seems they just rickrolled me and my money. It was just a lot of time lost and a bunch of money gone to lawyers and stuff. I had to quit my daily job and stop updating my apps while the negotiation was getting done, and then just nothing.

JR: You're back now, with a brand new 4.x-friendly version of ADWLauncher. How has ADW evolved since we saw it last?

Ander Webbs: The evolution is bigger for the free version of ADW than the EX version, but the changes are substantial for the latter, too. Lots of things launcher themers were asking for and lots of visual features and usability additions. And, as always, a powerful meaning of "customization."

Sometimes I find myself reading the official Android dev documentation and seeing statements like: "More settings means more choices to make, and too many are overwhelming." But 90% of my user feedback is asking me to make an option to do something. So when I code a cool new feature. I always try to make it optional so users can decide for themselves if they want it or not.

JR: What did it take to bring the app up to date with current Android standards?

Ander Webbs: During the acquisition fiasco, I actively and secretly worked on ADWLauncher EX, mainly because I use it myself and it didn't properly work on Android 4.x devices. I also wanted to rework the free ADW to make it closer to the EX version, and once the fiasco ended, I started working on it.

The tricky part was to build a core I could easily extend to manage both free and paid versions, but it's not a complete rewrite. I've rewritten lots of things, but it's still carrying around some things from the old days -- things I cannot change so users don't get mad, things I cannot change because I don't know how yet, and things I haven't changed yet but will be changing soon.

Like almost every developer, I'm always learning new tricks and good practices, so I'm always thinking about a rewrite. But like almost every developer, too, I end up patching and cheating instead of starting from scratch.

JR: How has the Android launcher game changed since you were last actively developing?

Ander Webbs: When Honeycomb came out, the launcher game changed. We couldn't see Android 3.x source code for a long time, but it was quite clear that things had reached a different level. Now when I read the AOSP code, I find myself amused by the amount of amazing things the Google guys put there. I've also seen a few great Android 4.x launcher forks with astonishing features and I've tried to port some of them into ADW myself.

But the fact that 90 percent of my user base was using Android 2.3 -- and 2.3.x is still around 60 percent of the official Android distribution charts -- made it quite difficult to port some of the greatest things. But that time will come.

JR: What about Android in general? What are your thoughts on how the platform and the ecosystem have evolved?

Ander Webbs: I'm a really happy user since Android 4.0 arrived. The system evolution is plain awesome -- not just the visual changes, but the core. As a developer, I always find myself wondering why certain elements of the system do this or that, then I start reading the source code from AOSP and find some new tricks and hacks. ... The quality jump from Android 2.x to 4.x is just, wow.

The ecosystem needs some love yet. The Play Store is still managed by merging the typical Google search scenario with the more user-friendly categorization and ratings. The search part, for what it is, works wonders. But search does not help with app discoverability, and the categorization, rating system, and featured stuff is not yet quite as good as it should be. ... Finding and discovering the right content can be quite hard nowadays.

JR: What's next for Ander Webbs? Any big projects/plans in the works?

Ander Webbs: I've always wanted to make more apps, and I have a few ideas. Android app development is funny: I love it, and every time I, as a user, find something not quite fulfilling my needs, I, as a developer, will try to fix it.

I also want to start writing something in my dev blog. I owe open source, and I owe a lot of people who write useful information available for everyone. I need to do it. I'd love to give it back.

JR: Last but not least, a little perspective on your own setup: What Android devices do you currently own? What ROMs, if any, are you using? And what phones and tablets have you owned in the past?

Ander Webbs: My current setup is a brand new Nexus 4 as a daily driver for everything and a Nexus 7 for book and comic reading and some Web use and gaming. My Nexus 10 just arrived, so I haven't made use of it beyond testing apps. All of the devices are running stock Android.

I also own a Galaxy Nexus, but that will soon become my wife's phone instead of her crappy LG Optimus 2X. For development, I mainly use my beloved Nexus One with CyanogenMod 7 and a Galaxy Tab 10.1 I/O edition with CyanogenMod 10.

Abandoned devices include a Nook Color, where I've just installed CyanogenMod 10 to give it away to a friend, an HTC Magic with CyanogenMod, and a Blackberry Playbook.

All of them --  even the Playbook -- run ADWLauncher EX.

Android Power Twitter

[The new versions of ADWLauncher and ADWLauncher EX are available in the Google Play Store. You can find Ander Webbs, meanwhile, on Google+ or Twitter.]

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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