Should Google De-Frag Android, Get All Phones on 2.1?

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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

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