Google Gesture Search Rekindles Android Fragmentation Debate

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2010-03-10

Google Gesture Search Rekindles Android Fragmentation Debate

News Analysis: When Google released its Google Gesture Search feature for Android smartphones March 3, it fanned the flames of a long-standing complaint about fragmentation and inconsistency among Google's mobile operating system platform.

Google Gesture Search, which lets users surface contacts and applications on their devices by tracing letters on the screen with their fingers, works on smartphones running versions Android 2.0 or higher.

This means that while owners of the Android 2.-based Motorola Droid and Android 2.1-based Google Nexus One can enjoy the feature, users of the HTC Droid Eris and the Motorola Backflip cannot because those devices are based on Android 1.5.

Gesture isn't the only feature or app to roll out in such a discriminating fashion. Google launched Google Maps Navigation turn-by-turn GPS directions last October on Android 2.0 devices such as the Droid, while Google Buzz for mobile was similarly made available on Android 2.0-plus devices one month ago.  

Laptop Magazine's Mark Spoonauer said this means Google is favoring the newer versions of its OS, noting that this "unfairly punishes both owners of devices running older flavors of Android, as well as Google's partners." Spoonauer added:

"What shoppers can't have-at least for the moment-is the best of both worlds. Why shouldn't a Droid Eris or myTouch 3G be able to use Google Buzz or Gesture Search? And why is it taking so long for handset makers to upgrade their wares to the latest OS? Diversity can be a good thing for consumer choice, but shoppers shouldn't have to choose between a slicker UI and being able to take advantage of Google's latest features."

However, a Google spokesperson explained that Google isn't alone in deciding what app is available for what platforms and devices. Google's OEM and carrier partners have something to do with this.

"Not all Android phones are managed devices," the Google spokesperson explained. "Google operates the other-the-air server for devices branded "with Google" or "Google" (as with the Nexus One). However, it is not at Google's sole discretion to issue software updates. Our partners, such as OEMs and operators, decide in the majority of cases when and what updates to issue to their customers."

Kevin Tofel, who writes for the popular mobile blog JKOnTheRun, defended Google and countered Spoonauer by arguing that Google isn't the only mobile platform maker that faces this quandary.

Why This Isnt Totally Googles Fault

While noting that Google is correct in making sure that new applications and features are available on the proper devices, Tofel echoed Google's comments that Google alone is not responsible for consumer discontent.

For example, he pointed to the Motorola Devour, which runs Android 1.6 and therefore does not support Google Gesture Search or Google Buzz for mobile.

"Who chose to put Android 1.6 on this new Android device? It certainly wasn't Google," Tofel wrote. "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 its mobile platform to the phone maker."

Moreover, he noted that Microsoft faced the same issues when Windows Mobile 6 came out, leaving Windows Mobile 5 in the dust.

So, how does one solve the fragmentation in favor of uniformity? Tofel said to look to Apple's iPhone and its tightly controlled ecosystem, where the profit has been maximized along with great customer satisfaction.

Who is right, Spoonauer or Tofel? Both or neither, depending on where your sympathies lie, according to Enderle Group analyst Rob Enderle.

"It really depends on who you think should own the customer," Enderle told eWEEK. "If it is Google then Mark is right and Google should aggressively assure a common user experience across all phones. If it is someone other than Google then Kevin is right and the OS has to roll according to the designs of whoever else owns the customer experience. 

"As accurately pointed out, this is a problem for all of the platforms and Microsoft faced the same issues that Google faces and both are playing the game a bit differently this year. In the end, for cell phones, Mark talks about how the market should be to maximize profit and customer satisfaction, Kevin talks about the market the way it currently is."

Add this to the proverbial wish list: a single button that lets Android smartphone users click to upgrade to the latest version of the OS.

That's not going to happen (blame hardware incompatibility, carrier and OEM restrictions or whatever you want), but it can't hurt to dream.

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