Netflix Android App Highlights Need for Google's Antifrag Group

Netflix for Android is out with a caveat: availability on only 5 handsets in the U.S. Netflix blamed the lack of a compatible DRM standard for the limited release.

Netflix May 12 launched its application for Android smartphones, allowing users to watch content instantly via WiFi or 3G connection.

The application will let users watching a movie on, say, the train ride home, continue watching it from their Web-connected TV or computer when they get home. Users may also browse content and manage their instant queue right from their phones.

However, there is a big, glaring caveat: The Netflix Android application is limited to five handsets. They include the HTC Incredible with Android 2.2, HTC Nexus One with Android 2.2 and 2.3, the HTC Evo 4G with Android 2.2, the HTC G2 with Android 2.2 and the Samsung Nexus S with Android 2.3.

Considering that there are now more than 300 Android devices on the market, and that most of them are smartphones, that is an incredibly limited launch.

According to Netflix Product Manager Roma De, Android's rapid adoption and evolution made it challenging to build a streaming video application at all.

There just isn't a DRM (digital rights management) standard for secure, streaming playback that Netflix can adhere to for rolling its application out to every Android phone.

"In the absence of standardization, we have to test each individual handset and launch only on those that can support playback," De explained. "We are aggressively qualifying phones and look forward to expanding the list of phones on which the Netflix app will be supported."

De said he expected many of the technical challenges would be resolved in the coming months so that Netflix may bring its streaming application on a "large majority of Android phones."

Compared to the current small minority of Android phone owners, that's a relief, but note that De hasn't guaranteed the application will work across all Android phones.

Ironically, the fragment-friendly Netflix Android application comes just two days after Google Android Vice President of Product Management unveiled a group geared to curb such fragmentation.

The as-yet-unnamed group, which includes top U.S. carriers Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile, and phone makers Motorola, Samsung and HTC, will convene to ensure that Android smartphones they pump out will be eligible for software updates 18 months into the future, provided the hardware allows for it.

The goal is to head off the gross inconsistency associated with Android build upgrades. Samsung's Galaxy S handsets have been the most abused here, with updates to the Android 2.2 "Froyo" taking months to roll out.

Case in point: Froyo has been out for almost 11 months now and Verizon's Samsung Fascinate is still running Android 2.1.

Ideally, the Google-led coalition will curb this fragmentation, but industry analyst Jack Gold said he has to see it to believe it.

"With all the various devices, manufacturers and carriers, it's going to be hard to enforce this," Gold told eWEEK. "It would be beneficial to users, but I don't think it will happen anytime soon, at least not until Google decides to stipulate exactly what a device has to have to be upward-compatible and/or upgradeable, which it is unlikely to do, given the open nature of Android."

Meanwhile, owners of the five Android phone types Netflix currently supports can head to the Android Market and download the free Netflix application to enjoy movies streamed on their phones this weekend.