Star pupils

Google has been in the news repeatedly over the last six months for closing down some of its many, many side projects. In general these are being mothballed in perpetuity, but in some cases, there is a transition plan. This is the case for Google Sky Map, and for our community it’s an interesting variation on the more traditional ‘open source it and hope it takes off’ approach that industry players like Nokia have tried in the past, and HP seem about to try again.

Sky Map is an application for Android mobile devices that was born out of the so-called 20% time that Google grants its engineers for the pursuing of personal projects. Back in 2009 when Sky Map was launched, one of the few hardware advantages that the few Android phone then on the market had over the iPhone was a hardware sensor compass. The ‘wow’ moment of the first public display of Google’s Android hardware (the G1) was a demonstration of how the Streetview service could be used in combination with the device’s compass to display information relevant to the direction you are facing. To build on this brief window of competitive advantage (the iPhone acquired a compass in its next hardware iteration) Google’s Pittsburgh office (then based on the campus at Carnegie Mellon University) developed and released Sky Map. The functionality – showing information about the night sky in the direction you were looking – was useful and educative and spawned tens of imitators over the next few years.

Given that the software no longer promoted a competitive advantage of Android hardware, and that the competition for apps of this kind has been getting tougher and tougher, it’s not entirely surprising that in Larry Page’s seemingly endless round of belt-tightening the project has been let go. Sky Map is returning to its roots on the Carnegie Mellon Campus:

“Today, we are delighted to announce that we are going to share Sky Map in a different way: we are donating Sky Map to the community. We are collaborating with Carnegie Mellon University in an exciting partnership that will see further development of Sky Map as a series of student projects. Sky Map’s development will now be driven by the students, with Google engineers remaining closely involved as advisors. Additionally, we have open-sourced the app so that other astronomy enthusiasts can take the code and augment it as they wish.”

This is an interesting approach. Although it’s not clear yet exactly what kind of student projects will be invited (computer science? astronomy? both? neither?) the idea of taking end-of-life, production code and open sourcing it to facilitate learning and teaching is a model I would like to see more generally adopted, for a few reasons.

Firstly, it is likely to teach open development methodologies to student software authors, something which is still notable by its absence in too many academic primary and secondary software development programmes. Secondly, it provides a compelling means of community engagement for the academic institution, opening a window into their teaching for the outside world and inviting collaboration. Thirdly, it advertises the skills of the students with a directness and accessibility that mere CV distribution cannot really match.

Although I’m not thrilled by Google’s year of the long knives (goodbye Google Sets *sniff*) solutions like the one proposed for Sky Map are genuinely exciting, and I’ll be watching for the resulting academic projects with interest.