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Summary:

Google’s Android experience varies by handset and not just because of different hardware. Four Android versions are available, but one report says Google is planning to get all devices on version 2.1 soon. There’s pros and cons to the solution — is it too late?

nexus one thumb

There aren’t any named sources to verify it, but Android and Me says that all Android handsets in the U.S. will get an upgrade to version 2.1. If true, that would be a huge step towards addressing the fragmentation problem that Google has faced up to now. Having at least four main Android versions in the wild – 1.5, 1.6, 2.0 and 2.1 — is bad for customers, carriers, developers and for Google. With these variances, nobody involved can guarantee or offer any semblance of a common end user experience. This is part of Apple’s strategy with the iPhone platform and also a key reason why Microsoft is standarizing requirements for it’s upcoming Windows Phone 7 series platform. And that raises a potential pitfall if Google does get all U.S. handsets on the same version of Android — performance variances due to various hardware configurations.

Like Microsoft, Google actually doesn’t make any of the handsets for its platform. Instead, it offers the operating system to handset makers that create designs, often with input from carriers. Even Google’s Nexus One is only designed by Google — it’s built by HTC, who currently creates more Android handsets than any other company. And I doubt that Google created the design from scratch. HTC is known for creating handsets targeted for various markets that are adopted for carriers or a company like Google. With smartphones ranging in price from free after subsidy to $600 or more unlocked, the guts will vary in many ways — processor capabilities and speed, amount of memory to run programs, graphical prowess and more. With such a wide variety of hardware already out there, putting Android 2.1 on every handset simply can’t guarantee performance commonalities or capabilities. So in one respect, this move could actually hurt Google’s mobile brand at this point — the fragmentation issues might have splintered this opportunities success rate.

Android and Me expects that most phones will see this upgrade in the second quarter, but like most phone upgrades, the carriers will be involved. Some cases could even require a full phone erase or wipe and might even need a computer for the upgrade process. I’ll assume that the common upgrade plan is true for a second — does it mean that the recent torrid pace of Android maturity will slow down? If not, then Google runs the risk of fragmentation all over again, depending on what’s planned for the Android road map. Slowing things down might not a bad thing. It could be time for Google to stop and take a breath so that the hardware can catch up to the software. Otherwise, we’re going to continue to see new and more capable Android devices hitting on a frequent cycle, which does nothing more than aggravate consumers who’s “top of the line” handset plays second fiddle to a new phone a month or two later.

What do you think: should Google attempt to herd the cats and get all devices on the same base firmware?

Related research on GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

Mobile OSes Are No Longer Just About Mobile

  1. Google definitely needs to rein in the runaway herd of horses that Android has become. Just as Microsoft has announced they’ll be doing with Windows Phone 7 Google needs to mandate a minimum set of requirements for all future Android phones/devices. As it stands right now you have phones out there running 1.5, 1.6, 2.0, and 2.1. And if the rumors prove true those phones getting an update to 2.1 won’t actually be getting all the enhancements of 2.1. That’s just unacceptable because if it doesn’t have all the features of 2.1 it’s not really 2.1! If this isn’t fixed there will be confusion and people will start to get confused as to what phone has what and then get mad if the new Android phone they just bought has a 2 year old version of the OS.

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    1. I guess following your logic my iPhone isn’t really running iPhone OS 3.x because the OS upgrade didn’t give it features like compass and video camera (yeah, it’s jb’en, so a 3rd party hack fixed that).

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  2. Is this really Google’s fault? When companies take it on themselves (HTC, Motorola) to provide a modified version of Android with Sense or Blur, it’s up to those companies to provides updates for their variant of Android. Google’s got 2.1 out there, HTC is taking its time and barely showed Sense with 2.1 at MWC. For phones that won’t be out for awhile.

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    1. In addition to the carriers who may have to do their own modifications before sending out an update.

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  3. Android, for all intents and purposes, IS Linux. Thee is NO reason a G1, HTC Hero, mytouch3g, Droid or ANY of the phones should not be able to work on Android 2.1. It’s not THAT different than 1.5 or 1.6. In fact, there is a youtube video with the G1 running a hacked version of 2.1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CA0JjI0NnpM

    If you have run CyanogenMod, you have already enjoyed parts of the 2.1 rom. Current CyanogenMod has the desk clock from 2.1 and other pieces. PLUS Cyanogen has enabled it so you can run part of the root file system (usually resides entirely on ROM) on the SD card. I have 2 gigs of storage on my SD dedicated for applications via this method. There is NO REASON that this could not be implemented in a stock rom (have the phone format the partitions on the SD card on initial setup).

    I agree…they need to move everyone to 2.1. This would allow 90 percent of the apps to run on any Android phone. The problem we have now is:

    Google Maps with navigation will not install or run on android 1.5.
    Google Earth runs only on android 2.1.

    Those are high profile GOOGLE apps and they won’t run on a good chunk of android phones. This makes early adopters think HARD whether they want to continue with Android or go to a platform that doesn’t have this problem.

    In the end, it’s not Google that is at fault for the fragmentation. It’s the manufacturers, specifically, htc. They have phones on 1.5, 1.6 and 2.1. The biggest reason 2.1 won’t run on the lower phones with out some work is drivers. In most cases, it’s just a kernel update and it has already been done by the hackers. Google SHOULD point that out to HTC.

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    1. Seriously. Make sure you know what you’re talking about before you make a comment. That video isn’t a true build and the phone runs damn slow.

      You can’t blame everything on the manufacturers. There’s a big issue here in that manufactures need to differentiate their products from their competitors. Otherwise, they might as well just be OEMs (and be paid like one). Google chose a strategy to grab as much market share as quickly as possible even if they knew it would lead to fragmentation. For that, they are to blame.

      For manufacturers, they need to make a choice of if it’s worth the time and resources to release a compatible update that doesn’t hurt the user experience. My guess is that they won’t put it high on their priorities because Android isn’t their platform and they aren’t guaranteed high volumes for producing an Android phone. Remember, outside of the Nexus One, every Android phone on the market is selling below manufacturing costs and depending on carrier subsidies to make a profit. (I would also bet the they aren’t getting the high subsidies that the iPhone commands).

      But fragmentation isn’t the biggest problem I see for Android. That would be how quickly Android be able to keep up with the evolution of the iPhone. iPhone 4.0 promises to be to a major upgrade and with Apple’s integrated hardware and software structure, they will be able to push new product features out much faster than Android. Any innovations will surely be accompanied with a slew of patents that Android will have to figure out how to work around. Of course that’s just speculation. We’ll see in June.

      Lastly. For tech heads, the idea of jail breaking your phone to get updates may seem easy, but for a mass market appeal, these issues must be handled for a user. Until this issue is solved, I don’t see Android gaining mass adoption.

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  4. This reminds me of Windows. You had several versions of Windows and as time went, software improved and so did the requirements. I think it would be a good idea for Google to up grade or at least let only the handsets that are capeable of running 2.1 upgrade to it. Like Kevin mentions, maybe Google needs to slow down and improve the OS to run on the current hardware. This way users that have older hardware don’t feel to left behind, of course at some point they do need to update to the newer hardware to run and use the newer features of the Android OS.

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  5. why? nobody complains when there are 3 main versions of Windows out there (not even counting SP’s). people are going to have to start thinking of these as handheld computers & not coddle-me phones.

    the REAL problem is the carriers having to “certify” each release & OEM’s who slap their UI on top.

    im hoping 1 day that the phone/carrier relationship will be just like the PC/ISP relationship, completely independent.

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  6. I also think that Google needs to slow down. In stead of trying to dazzle analyst at upcomming trade shows, they should think about their existing customers. They remind me of Microsoft who kept making Windows larger and larger so that Intel could have greater margins. I thought that Android was suppose to be slim, trim and powerful and would fit on any device. Whether it be a TV remote control or a Mainframe but as it is going the TV remoter will have to rum 1.5 while the Mainframe runs 6.5. I wish Google would instate Device Advocates who would argue for their device. As a G1 customer who wanted to see my device soar with the eagles, well, I am resigned to believe that that dream was in my head alone and that there is no device advocates at Google. I belived in Google and their montra. Now it turns out that they are just another Microsoft. Ans as far as the rumers go, 2.1 can’t fit on a G1. CyanoginMod runs 1.5 with a 2.1 SDK. That’s not a true 2.1 build.

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  7. Features available for my 1.6 work. Will they work under 2.1? I’m willing to take the chance and look forward to it.

    And, I’ll be the one to say it – please proofread what you write.

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  8. Dr. Grace Augustine Saturday, February 27, 2010

    I say motor ahead. Since hardware advances are accelerating at warp speed you cannot downgrade your latest software to play with the common denominators as this WILL WEAKEN THE OS and we do not want a watered down phone OS.

    Phone customers almost always upgrade their phones when their current plan expires anyway. So what really needs to happen is all the carriers need to adopt ONE YEAR data plans that will sync with the hardware upgrades mo betta.

    I would not waste any resources on the bottom feeders. Remember most people that stick with old phone OS tend to stay well behind the curve anyhow so you will never bring this type of slag to the forefront of the pack.

    Android needs to stay in pack leader mode. The weaker dogs need to be brushed aside. These are “smart phones” not Nokia junk feature phone boys.

    A 6 month hardware & software upgrade path needs to be firmly embedding into the cerebral cortex of the buying public. If your cranium is too dense to accommodate this rapid update cycle then you are not the type of purchaser The Google needs to fatten their R&D budget to keep ahead in the mobile space race.

    DO NOT WASTE TIME AND RESOURCES DE-FRAGGING FOR OLD HARDWARE.

    ‘NUFF SAID before my head explodes.

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  9. Well, Android is backward compatible, it was never said it would be forward compatible!… So phone have good processors others have not so good ones and it’s perfectly acceptable that some phones aren’t capable to upgrade to a newer version of Android if it requires a more advanced hardware configuration.
    The same applies to applications like Google Earth that push devices to their limits and because of that require advanced hardware features like a snappy processor and good graphics and Android v2.1 or better in this case.

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  10. fragmentation? Does MacOS X Snow Leopard run on non-Intel computers?

    If you have an out of date computer running MacOS X (pre-Tiger), it’s practically useless. You can’t hardly download any versions of applications that run on your computer.

    On the other hand, Windows 2000 is STILL able to run many modern applications.

    I’m not saying Windows 2000 is my operating system of choice (I use MacOS X), but I think the fragmentation issue is a non-issue.

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