Santa (well, Santa Tracker) helps Google test its dev tools

Watch Santa get ready for his Christmas Eve trip, while Google tests its dev tools

As the time for St. Nick's big ride quickly approaches, kids of all ages can track his progress delivering presents around the world with Google's Santa Tracker website and app.

The Santa Tracker is a holiday gift from Google to its users, but the software is also used to test the company's other development tools.

"We look at Santa Tracker as a way to test and work with some of the new cutting-edge developer products or APIs that we're going to be putting out there," said Andres Ferrate, manager of Google's developer platform and head of its Santa Tracker project. "It's a way to give them a significant test. It allows us to give feedback to our product teams."

Google has dozens of employees who largely volunteer their time to develop the Santa Tracker website and Android app. They start planning in September, increase their efforts in October and then really dive into the project in November, Ferrate said.

The company previously worked with NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense command) to provide a Santa Tracker website for kids to follow Kris Kringle on his Christmas Eve ride, but in 2012 NORAD teamed with Microsoft and began using the Windows Azure cloud computing platform and Bing Maps.

Google went off on its own.

Now both offer their own Santa Trackers, but Google also uses the project as a test bed.

This year, the Google Santa Tracker features a count-down-to-Christmas clock, along with a new game or feature to be found every day until Christmas.

The most well-known feature is the Google Maps-powered dashboard that will be featured on Christmas Eve, which kids can use to track Santa's progress as he makes his way around the world, delivering presents and cheer.

"The elves are back on the clock in the North Pole," wrote Sandy Russell, Google's Santa Launch Strategist, in a blog post earlier this month. "The elves have a busy month ahead of them -- the reindeer need training and the presents need packing. They're studying up on Santa's upcoming stops with candy cane cartography, holiday tradition tests and even jolly JavaScript courses."

Google also has a Santa Tracker app for the Android platform as well as a Chrome extension to help people track Santa and his elves while on the go.

The site isn't drastically different this year, but there have been some changes, including a new game that appears every day and learning tools about different countries.

"This year we've decided to focus on adding a lot more educational elements," Ferrate said. "The village is kind of an Advent-style countdown with something new every day. There are educational games about geography and there's some educational experiences around coding… Part of it is that the experience itself is built almost entirely on the developer products we have. It's a natural length to extend that and talk about coding as well."

Two years ago, a Google engineer developed a Santa Tracker API that runs on the Google App Engine, which is part of Google's cloud platform. It also uses the Google Maps API.

The Santa Tracker API servers up St. Nick's Christmas Eve route, while the cloud holds the code and runs the countdown clock.

"When we launched Santa Tracker with an enhanced experience for Android, we were putting the new version of the API through its paces," Ferrate said. "In a variety of ways, we were able to provide feedback to the product team and determine if there were any bugs. It was our own opportunity to come up to speed building with this new maps API in a real-world scenario."

For Google's Santa Tracker mobile app, for example, the team used the latest version of Android Studio, a developer environment for the Android platform. Developers used the environment's new memory profiling tools to help them track down memory problems in the app so that it works better on different devices.

Before Google launched new watch faces for Android Wear, which is powered by the Watch Face API, the Santa Tracker team performed tests on the new API. The testing not only helped the developers build this year's website and app, it enabled them to give feedback on the API's functionality.

"It allows us to see how our developer products can work together to put together a really good experience," Ferrate said. "We're eating our own dog food. Santa Tracker is really an opportunity for us to use our own development products that we give to third parties and along the way we learn about the development experience."

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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