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Summary:

In a smart opinion piece, Mark Spoonauer makes the case for Google Android favoritism with new features and functions often appearing only on new Android devices. There’s definitely a fragmentation issue that Google is causing, but there’s plenty of blame to go around.

Late last night, Mark Spoonauer of Laptop Magazine penned an editorial about Google. It’s a smart opinion piece with the stance that Google is showing favoritism for their own platform and specificially for the most current versions of Android. There’s some merit to the arguments about Android fragmentation — a point made here nearly a year ago — but as much as I respect Mark and his opinion, the justifications presented aren’t telling the whole story. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about Apple, Google, Microsoft or another smartphone platform maker, there are a number of players in the cellular game that impact decisions ranging from operating system to user interface to apps. Here’s the baseline situation as Mark describes it:

“Right now, T-Mobile sells four Android phones. Guess how many run Android 2.0 or higher? Zilch. The only 2.0 device you can use on T-Mobile’s network that offers all of the above goodies is sold directly through Google, the Nexus One. Sprint doesn’t sell a single Android phone running 1.6 or higher, although it promises to upgrade its devices. And the only AT&T Android phone, the Motorola Backflip, runs 1.5. Verizon Wireless has one phone that runs 1.6, the Motorola Devour, so you can download the beta of Google Maps Navigation, but not Buzz for mobile or Gesture Search. The Droid runs 2.0, and will be upgraded to 2.1 soon.”

The facts are the facts and Mark is absolutely correct in describing the situation. But only calling Google out specifically just doesn’t make sense in this context. Let’s look at why that is.

Smart presentation

Mark rightly points out that the coolest new Android apps are appearing on handsets with newer builds of Android first — and sometimes exclusively. Google Maps Navigation debuted on the Motorola Droid with Android 2.0 and Google Buzz is supported on 2.x as well. But I ask myself: if I were Google and I wanted to rock out a new app and build the biggest buzz, I’d get it on the heartiest hardware first so it really shines from a performance perspective. I’d also pair it with hardware designed to show it off — the Droid car dock morphs what’s essentially a software product into a look-alike, standalone GPS device. That simple dock, designed specifically for the Droid, takes the Google software solution and transforms the experience. Don’t think so? Imagine if Google debuted the software on the original G1. The impact would be muted without a dock and on less capable hardware. Instead, Google chose the right hardware combination to show it off and the stock value of some GPS makers dropped 20%. And only a month after the Navigation software debuted, Google ported it down to older devices running Android 1.6. The Buzz application certainly fits as an example, but I think it’s easy to dismiss for two reasons — one, Buzz isn’t yet a “must-use” service and two, it’s available in a limited fashion on older Android devices via the web.

Who’s really to blame?

That brings up the Android 1.5 and 1.6 issues, though. Mark raises solid points about the customer confusion between the four main versions of Android currently available. The brand-new Motorola Devour (see our hands-on review here) is landing on Verizon Wireless with Android 1.6, so there’s no native Google Buzz support and no Google Gesture Search, either. Those are great examples and again, Mark is spot-on with the facts. But who chose to put Android 1.6 on this new Android device? It certainly wasn’t Google. If you have to “blame” someone, choose either Motorola who made the phone or Verizon who decided to sell the phone. All Google does for this phone is provide versions of it’s mobile platform to the phone maker. If I had to pick on someone in this specific case, it would be Motorola — the Devour runs Motorola’s custom interface called MotoBlur and Motorola doesn’t offer that UI on anything higher than Android 1.6. There’s your likely culprit in this case, which has nothing to do with Google’s perceived favoritism for current Android versions.

Haven’t we been here before?

I can’t help but think back to very similar situations in the Windows Mobile space — another fragmented mess. Windows Mobile 5 devices arrived with a fresh new look and later Microsoft added features and tweaks with Windows Mobile 6. The same brouhaha arose with some handsets getting the upgrade and others were bypassed. Even those that were upgradable had to wait for months and months —  I had nearly a half-year wait for my Dash, for example. Was it Microsoft’s fault back then? Perhaps in some ways, but think about where we got those upgrades from if our devices qualified — from either the handset manufacturers or from the carriers directly. Just like Google today, Microsoft simply developed the platform and it was up to others to take action — or not, as the case may be. Sure it was easy to blame Microsoft if you had a Windows Mobile 5 device and some new apps weren’t supported your phone. But “easy to blame” doesn’t mean the blame was cast correctly. It wasn’t then and it’s not now.

Pace of change and lowest common denominators

So back to the latest and greatest software features hitting Android 2.0 or 2.1. Let’s apply the “Google is punishing consumers” reasoning to a another situation. Should we all blast Microsoft for not going back to add Aero features in Windows XP? Of course not, that would be silly. First of all, there are driver and hardware issues to contend with and secondly, XP support is getting dropped in favor of Vista and Windows 7, i.e.: newer versions of the company’s product. Granted, this example is super-extreme, but there’s a bigger point to be made here — technology is evolving at an increasingly fast rate. What was hot five years ago — or even five months ago — is old news. New platforms and features are constantly being added to our mobile devices and the maturity cycles are speeding up. What’s a company to do?

From a business perspective, they have to keep customers on old versions happy when possible, but that doesn’t help sales to new customers. Innovation is focused on the future far more than the past, so Google’s efforts to develop new apps for the latest and greatest Android version isn’t a reason for persecution. And developing new Android apps for the lowest common denominator limits innovation because developers can’t take advantage of new APIs or other functions — in a case like this, the pace of Android maturity would greatly slow, and that’s not a recipe for success in a fast-past market.

There’s another factor here as well, and it actually justifies the choice of Android 1.5 or 1.6 on a handset from a carrier’s perspective. Carriers offer wide ranges of phones in order to appeal to the widest possible audience. Assume a customer walks into a Verizon store with the intent of purchasing an Android handset. If a $199 Motorola Droid running Android 2.x is considered too expensive for that customer, should Verizon lose the sale because they have nothing else to offer? Of course, not — they’ll steer that customer to a device in the $99 or $149 range. And if that customer still wants an Android phone, they can lessen the functionality and the price to make that happen. The Devour is a perfect example of this — slightly less performance under the hood, but a solid Android 1.6 experience for less money. How is that customer being punished? Without a lower model phone running an older version of Android, how will the customer get what they want at a price they can afford?

Yes, there is an issue, but…

There is a fragmentation issue with Android — in that respect, I’m in total agreement with Mark. I’ve even asked your opinions on if Google should “de-frag” Android and attempt to get most, or all, phones on the same version. But ultimately, it’s not up to Google and their open-source platform. It’s up to the carriers and the handset makers unless Google draws a line in the sand and exerts near-total control. If that’s what you really want, you can already get that from a company in Cupertino.

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

Mobile OSs Are No Longer Just About Mobile

  1. So I take it neither of you believe the report that all U.S. Android phones will be upgraded to 2.1 this year.
    http://androidandme.com/2010/02/news/all-u-s-android-phones-to-receive-android-2-1-but-some-will-require-a-wipe/

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    1. I don’t think it’s likely because no one entity can make that decision under the current scenario. Should it be done is a different question.

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  2. Only one problem with that article it forgot the reality of rooting. There is no reason why a rooted phone should not be able to upgrade if they so choose. Google has not released a running 2.X with drivers for the magic. If they did I would have by now.

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  3. Kevin,
    What an excellent, well balanced, well thought out, well presented piece.

    I have always favored James a little more in terms of articles written, but now…. I don’t know.

    Stellar stuff. Well Done !

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  4. “With Google” and Google’s marketing needs to stay away from my Moto Droid then. Moto working closely with “Us”(Google)closely can’t continue to come out of Google”s mouth…piece!

    “All Google does for this phone is provide versions of it’s mobile platform to the phone maker.”

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  5. The problem is, Google offers the OS as is, and then its up to the manufacturers to add specific drivers and patches to run on a particular device. The thing is, thanks to the open source nature, you can make a custom build, and with enough know how, get all the drivers working. It takes time, but if you are a skilled developer, you can do it. Once a developer or group of developers gets a rom working, then people can root and flash. Those who aren’t technical enough to root, generally won’t care about the OS version anyway. They buy a phone to do what they want. So I think this whole thing will play out really well. Best solution for those that care: Get a Google branded, no added UI phone. This will ensure that you get all the updates and will speed up the time you get upgrades. From now on, I think hardware like the Nexus One will not be an issue. Go for quality, and keep your phone a little longer. I’m sure Droid will get the update soon. Probably a little hiccup in getting the drivers running. Or maybe Verizon wants to wait to release it for the Droid Eris at the same time. Who knows.

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    1. Oh, and I forgot, very well written post. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts. That was very refreshing compared to all the charged posts on these matters all over the net.

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  6. I agree on your argument that the device manufacturer should be equally responsible for the fragmentation. However, Google Android fragmentation goes beyond just version of OS. Google actually cripple quite a lot of non-phone Android devices by not letting those devices receive Google experience (including Market). Archos 5 IT is one of the best example. There is really no reason to separate “Android” vs “Google Phone version of Android”. I think at this part, Google is at complete responsibility of providing platform that is not equal among versions.

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  7. Even that company in Cupertino is fragmenting its iPhone OS as not all apps that works for the iPhone works for the iPad, like, the apps that require GPS as the iPad doesn’t have GPS. oh, no GPS on the iPad? forget the iPad.

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    1. Point is that my old edge iphone still runs iPhone OS 3.1.3
      And can install all apps on the app store. Some of them which require GPS or video recording do not work. Okay thats fine.

      If there was a buzz app and if it required 3.1.3, it would work on my 3 year old phone. Can you say the same about Android and the G1 ?

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      1. but Apple supposedly uniform iPhone OS is highly hyped. For Android, you expect choice, as in many flavors of the OS- Android is all about customer choice. Apple’s fragmentation of its locked down, one choice, Steve-Jobs-knows-best-for-you iPhone OS, on the other hand, is just copying Android’s customer-focused model.

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    2. Also take into account that a brilliant Linux based phone can get all the updates released by its manufacturer. I am talking about Palm’s WebOS.

      Android is a mess and Google needs to assert a little more control. I am not talking Apple like control, but not the anarchy it is now.

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      1. Palm isn’t as good as it used to be. And Android wasn’t fragmented when it only had two devices either. And I know, technically there is four, but the plus’s aren’t that much different from the originals. Android’s fragmentation isn’t that big of a deal. The tablet issue is annoying, but it will get resolved eventually. The versions of the OS are annoying, but devs don’t have that much trouble and the one’s that complain are iPhone fanboys usually. Google has made it pretty simple to develop apps that work on all versions. If your app requires features of newer OS’s, then make it for them. For the phones that aren’t updated, just root. That’s what makes Android better. You can change and cutomize ANYTHING that you want. As for games, there are a lot of good ones starting to show up and Google recently released more graphics compatibility. Just wait til the end of the year. By then, I think a lot of confusion and problems will be resolved, and any new Android phones won’t deal with all these issues.

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  8. Its hard to argue with you on most points but i do take issue with part of your analysis as presented here.

    First of all i dont know/care whether people are blaming Google for the fragmentation.Thats really not the issue.From where i am standing it has been obvious from the very beginning that its the manufacturers who are responsible.Seriously , how much effort is necessary to port a sorry bunch of widgets and maybe a couple of drivers to the newest version ?In the case of the backflip the widgets can definitely run on 1.6 (eg the devour) but still the backflip (which hasnt even been released yet) runs an archaic version which is just deprecating.How could this be Google’s fault ?

    The choice i am called to make as a consumer is how to better spend ( invest ?) my money.This has nothing to do with how much i like or appreciate Google (or even Android) but with how much value i am going to get for my money.If i cant be guaranteed that my os will be updated regularly and quickly after a new version has become available from Google i feel like i am being somehow deceived and cheated out of my money.It almost feels like buying a dumbphone.Why shouldnt i go for an iPhone where i know this isnt going to be an issue ?

    You also say that there have to be many option to cover all the price spectrum so there you have it ! 1.5 and 1.6 devices for the low end ! That is just ridiculous.The hardware specs alone are MORE than enough to justify the price difference.Even if the devour ran 2.1 it would still be a horrible choice compared to the Droid.Thats obviously not the reason why they re doing it.Even if it was it would be a pretty low blow to the consumer.

    The thing is that the manufacturers arent willing to come out and offer answers to all these questions so that i (and all of you) know what i am going to get for my money and that creates uncertainty and doubt on my part which is exactly why i havent bought an android device so far.That is exactly what people are complaining about but they dont seem to be able to phrase it comprehensively.

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  9. All rooted android phones can run all versions first off. I love android because they don’t control anything with there phones there’s always a way around any wall they throw up. If the unthinkable happens and apple(crapple) destoys androind my g1 will be smashed and ill go back 2 my razor no way ill buy a crapple iphone ipad or ijunk any1 who does is a lapdog. Any updatw apple gives they make a pain in da ass to do do any dumba***** just buy a new 1 for 2 much money g1 is god peace haters fcrapple

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  10. But is WinMo really a good example? Some could argue that the fragmentation/lack of consistency on that platform was part of the reason for its fall from grace. You couldn’t easily go from WinMo phone to WinMo phone-they all had different features/tweaks, and it was basically not a unified platform to depend on.

    The reality is Windows Phone 7 is taking a much stronger unified platform stand than either WinMo or Android, exactly to avoid the issues that Android is now facing.

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