When Android was introduced by Google the open nature of the platform was considered one of its main strengths. Google made it clear that as an open platform, developers would be able to leverage its strengths and expand in areas as they saw fit. This got the entire mobile space understandably excited, and we are just beginning to see the fruits of that openness as more handsets running Android are beginning to appear. It is too early to raise an alarm, but we may be seeing the openness begin to make the Android experience fragment as we have seen in Microsoft’s Windows Mobile for quite some time.
The first Android phone, the G1 from T-Mobile in the U.S., was a Google phone through and through, and the tight Google integration was often touted as a strength in early reviews. Recently, word has started to appear that HTC, maker of the G1, will offer the HTC Magic without the Google branding and with other “special sauce” features not in the basic Android installation. This makes sense as OEMs and phone carriers want to differentiate themselves from the competition on any platform and the open nature of Android plays into this customization.
There is a dark side to such differentiation, however, something we have seen in the Windows Mobile camp for years. Android will likely begin having multiple faces as the interface is modified by different companies. We see this in the Windows Mobile world, and that is thought to fragment the awareness the consumer has of the platform. It looks one way on one handset and totally different on others. Android is likely going to start being changed (in fact, that’s already be occurring), and it’s going to start looking very different depending on whose handset or which carrier’s phone you are checking out.
This may not be a bad thing, but I am afraid in one area, a very important one, this openness is going to backfire. It’s going to start turning the Android update experience into a mish-mash process like that of Windows Mobile. We will probably at some point see an Android update get rolled out that not everyone can get on their phone. They will have to wait for the handset maker to modify the update to fit their own modifications. Then consumers may very well have to wait for their particular phone carrier to bless that update and modify it further for their particular subset of customers — if they choose to release it at all.
This is exactly the situation that owners of Windows Mobile phones face today and have lived with for years. It is common for owners of Windows Mobile phones to have a new OS feature denied them because all the ducks can’t get in a row to get the update released to them. I see this easily happening in the Android world, and if so, that would be a very bad thing for the platform. Diversity is good, but it comes at a steep price.