Google Android Fragmentation Threatens to Choke Platform Growth

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Google Android Fragmentation Threatens to Choke Platform Growth

by Clint Boulton

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Android Everywhere

Android's rapid-fire development cycle has yielded Android versions 1.5, 1.6, 2.0 and 2.1. Manufacturers have shipped on more than 6 million Android handsets in 2009 and is forecast to ship on more than 20 million in 2010, according to IMS Research.

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Google Maps Navigation

More choice is great, right? But what happens when Google releases an application for a later Android version that won't work for an older iteration? Complaining consumers. We first saw this with Google Maps Navigation, the turn-by-turn GPS app. The GPS app was originally created for Android 2.0+ devices such as the Motorola Droid before Google got around to adapting it for Android 1.6 devices, such as the HTC Droid Eris.

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Google Gesture Search

Google launched Google Gesture Search March 3 for Android 2.0+ devices before making it available to Android 1.6 devices a few weeks later.

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Here's the big, big upgrade that thousands of Droid users were looking for. Verizon and Motorola began pushing out Android 2.1 to the Android 2.0-based Motorola Droid March 30. Droid users, jealous of the pinch-to-zoom voice-to-text and other nifty features they saw with the Android 2.1-based Google Nexus One, were clamoring for the upgrade since Motorola promised it. After several delays, the telco and phone maker came through.

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Google Earth for Android 2.1

One week later, Google released Google Earth for Android for the newly Android 2.1-based Droid.

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Now you know all the games Google, phone makers like Motorola and HTC, and carriers such as Verizon must play to get Android users the apps they want. IMS Research analyst Chris Schreck said differentiating between strains of an OS, modifying code for each strain, and ensuring that a user obtains the appropriate version of a program, aren't practical for many mobile developers.

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Developers Get Pinched

Developer resources are notoriously limited. Adding incompatible strains within platforms to the already crowded smartphone OS space makes their Sysyphean task tougher, Schreck argued.

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Unhealthy Competition

Without Google addressing this fragmentation issue, Android developers are going to compete against each other to build apps for the newest platforms. The older versions get left out and become obsolete prematurely.

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Handset Makers, Carriers Struggle to Keep Up

Handset makers and mobile network carriers also suffer because cost of maintaining an investment in an OS goes up with each variation of the platform one needs to support, Schreck said. Motorola and Verizon, for example, had to work feverishly to upgrade the Droid to Android 2.1 and it still missed several deadlines.

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A Fix With the Froyo Android Build

Google is rumored to be working on addressing the issue by decoupling applications from the OS and making them available in the Android Market, starting with the Froyo (frozen yogurt) build. Schreck concluded that while Android will see considerable market share gains, in the future Google must manage fragmentation. "Otherwise, other operating systems like Symbian or the LiMo Platform, both of which take a harder line on platform fragmentation in the software license, will stand to gain as open source alternatives."

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