Will Google’s Android Suffer From Fragmentation?

7 Comments

With the introduction of the Motorola (NYSE: MOT) Droid today by Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ), there are now three different versions of the Android operating system currently for sale, which is raising red flags that the platform could become fragmented.

The problem with fragmentation is that developers will have a difficult time developing applications that could run smoothly on each platform. Besides hardware differences, like screen sizes, there will be software differences, too. Some phones will support multi-touch, and others won’t. Not to mention, each manufacturer is building their own user interface on top of the platform that offers a host of other features.

All of the problems could be solved if the older devices were upgraded to the latest software, but that’s not likely going to happen, reports IDG News Service. The Motorola Cliq runs version 1.5; the Motorola Droid runs 2.0 and most others run Android 1.6.

Motorola and Samsung were coy in saying whether it would upgrade its current handset line-up, and Google told IDG gave an equally vague answer. A Google spokeswoman said: “Because Android is open source, all software updates we release are available for carriers and handset makers to take and update their current or future Android-powered devices.” But in some cases, the older hardware might not be able to support the latest software.

While the issue is not new to mobile, it may be worse for Google (NSDQ: GOOG). To date, Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) has rolled out three major versions of its iPhone operating system. Developers were expected to update their apps in order to support the latest platform. However, Apple does not currently suffer from having multiple hardware configurations or UIs. Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) perhaps is a more relevant comparison. But it charges a license fee for Windows Mobile and doesn’t provide over-the-air updates for its operating system. Rather, it rolls out a new version every year or so, forcing users to purchase a new phone in most cases to get the new OS. Developers are given enough notice to make the necessary changes. While Microsoft has a slower pace to market, the methodology also may ease fragmentation issues. In October, Greg Sullivan, Senior Product Manager for Windows Mobile told mocoNews that since Google is relying on an open source platform, it could be affected by the platform splitting off and having multiple threads, which causes confusion. “It remains to be seen if that will happen,” he said.

7 Comments

Fred

Deja Vu! This has Symbian Episode II written all over it. Open source platform for the manufacturers to use for the phones. The big manufacturers (Nokia, Motorola, and Ericsson) all use the platform and then start tweaking it for their own uses. Before you know it, compatability is gone as each manufacturer tries to one up the last.

U1

The real point is that the mobile users are suffering from the ignorance of software from many of the companies as these are proud to be stone-age guys, probably the single exception is Apple. I have been watching Nokia for long and voiced my concern as mobile app developer as far back as 2004, I am really sorry to see Nokia still languishing with its software ignorance. With Android, Google is a step ahead in this ignorance as it has further head-weight as they are 'lucky' to have huge ad-revenues. God save mobile users! may be, it is tough!

Gearhead Gal

I see 3 areas where the increasing variations in Android will impact the community being built around the open OS.

1) UI/UX. Each market developer will not be compiling to each of the branded presentation frameworks that the OEMs use to differentiate themselves. The market is a separate set of apps appended to the interaction screens created for a particular phone.
2) Device. Each manufacturer will try to optimize the way Android runs with their combination of choices for chipset, software solutions, screen and licenses. Over time the linkage between how the market apps are informed as a whole about how to interoperate with these unique stacks may get tighter, but the 3rd party app developer may not get access to APIs directly.
3) Network. OEMs and carriers will not want to enable apps to hog resources like the "fat kid at the front of the buffet line." Because there are variances in each carrier's network, and testing between the OEM and the carrier before the device is certified, apps that unduly use network resources may be blocked at the device or network level through configurations that prevent it from degrading all customer experiences on that network (e.g. constantly polling the network.)

Will this de facto create fragmentation? Perhaps. But for Android to succeed at open, everyone in the value chain has to believe it is a good idea to open each layer that impacts the user experience on a particular device. I would argue that it isn't necessarily in the best interest of the consumer to do that since many consumers I have seen with Android devices can't tell a good app from a bad app. The messages about what the app uses are so geeky that consumers ignore them, take anything and everything onto their device, and can rapidly find themselves with a sluggish, underperforming handset that is undependable as a mobile phone.

Just like with Windows, users may still find they have to purchase a new device to upgrade to a newer version of Android's OS even though their handset is capable of receiving an over the air update. If their existing device hardware is unable to support the next gen features (eg, better screen resolution, ROM size), the update just won't come to it and they will have to buy new hardware. This is a bit of a red herring, and pretty much a fact of life with most update-able consumer electronics, just most noticeable in the rapidly changing world of wireless devices.

vzw_test

This fragmentation is a turn-off for developers like me. Even BREW had better process starting with 3.1.

I have developing apps on Apple, Blackberry, WM and now Android.

If I have to pick my best app platforms then I would pick iPhone/iPod and Blackberry platforms.

Rest are struggling for their adulthood.

Jamie Poitra

Yeah, you have a point there. And I think to other's (besides Daniel Lyons) its been obvious for awhile. I do think though, that if the the number of Android phones gets large enough that it can/will outweigh the issues I mentioned at least.

Bob Conner

You guys just figured this out? Even Fake Steve Jobs called this one early.

Jamie Poitra

I think in one important way it already has.

Similarly to WindowsMobile an app developer has no standard screen size, keyboard layout, etc. Which is why some apps either don't work or look terrible on the first DROID phone from Verizon. The more phone makers mess with the configurations of the hardware the harder it will be to develop for the platform.

Apple has a significant advantage in that their platform has a very stable configuration. Things have certainly changed from one to the other but they've done it in a way that prevents the changes from becoming a major issue.

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