2011: The year Android had Multiple Personality Disorder

Summary:In 2011 Google's Android brought us splits in versions, open source commitment, carrier and OEM implementations, preferred device vendors and application ecosystems.

As an avid Android user, 2011 is a year I hope that we never have to repeat.

For all of the progress Android has made in the last year in establishing itself as the leading smartphone operating system, commanding over a 46 percent market share according to comScore in its Q3 findings and sending RIM and its BlackBerry well on its way towards platform irrelevance, so many other distracting things went on that kept it from fully realizing its true potential.

In modern psychiatric medicine, the term "Dissociative Identity Disorder" (or DID for short) is used to describe what is commonly referred to as Multiple Personality Disorder -- a rare mental illness in which a human being manifests distinctly different and separate personalities in their own brain, each of which have their own pattern of perceiving and interacting with the environment.

Awareness of the condition was first popularized with the 1974 novel and then the 1976 NBC television miniseries "Sybil" starring actress Sally Field, which was re-made in 2007 with Tammy Blanchard reprising the title role.

The Year in Review, the Year Ahead

If you could sum up what was wrong with Android in 2011, this despite it having achieved the market leading platform position in the mobile industry, Dissociative Identity Disorder just about describes it exactly. Here's why.

Split Smartphone and Tablet Personalities

The first and most easily recognizable dissociative identity problem is that for the past year, we've had entirely different versions of Android for smartphones and for tablets -- Gingerbread (2.3.x) and Honeycomb (3.x).

This has not only caused confusion in the marketplace where we've had both Gingerbread and Honeycomb used in tablets (the most notable Gingerbread tablet being the Amazon Kindle Fire, that has already sold in the millions of units) but we've also had confusion as far as to which Android versions developers should be targeting their application development efforts towards in the first place.

None of these dissociative identity problems have really helped Android at all. Because there were more products with 2.x implementations of Android in the wild than 3.x, developers really didn't write many tablet-optimized Android apps in 2011.

This is because everyone who was focused on application development was waiting for that single unifying version for smartphones and tablets, Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0, which was only very recently released into the wild.

A Split Commitment to Open Source

As if having two distinctly different versions of Android in the wild to address two different target device formats wasn't painful enough, Google also decided to withhold the Honeycomb 3.x source code from developers, which potentially damaged their relationship with the Open Source community in the process.

The full reasons why the Honeycomb source was withheld in 2011 from developers is not quite understood, but I have my own theories. By only restricting the source code to licensed OEMs making tablet devices, Google thought perhaps it could prevent further fractionalization.

Google also knew that its tablet implementation of the OS wasn't ready for prime time and thus by witholding the source, it prevented heavy proliferation of a half-baked, buggy tablet implementation before Ice Cream Sandwich could hit the streets at the end of the year.

Unfortunately, the inability of the developer community to participate in the Open Source process probably resulted in quite a bit of bad blood and and very well may have set back the progress of Android becoming a leading tablet OS by at least a year if not more.

Ice Cream Sandwich's source code was released in mid-November of 2011 and the community is already hard at work adapting it and improving it for various hardware platforms.

It's too bad none of that developer activity couldn't have started 9 months ago with Honeycomb.

A Split Universe Between Google and Amazon Ecosystems

Not to be deterred by Google's own dissociative identity problems with Android, Amazon went off on its own tangent and released Amazon Appstore for Android.

At first this was perceived as strictly a monetization play in order to piggyback on existing Android devices in order to leverage the growing Amazon ecosystem. Eventually, everyone found out what was actually the real reason for its existence was -- to provide the basis for an entirely different Android tablet universe from Amazon, in the form of the Kindle Fire.

Given that Amazon was not a OEM partner of Google's, and it wanted to produce its own tablet, it decided to go with the most current Open Source version of the OS available -- Gingerbread.

I was well aware this was the case long before the Kindle Fire was even announced, and my own predictions actually came very close to reality.

Amazon's implementation of Android, which I've previously nicknamed "Kindlebread" is a fork of the Open Source 2.3 Gingerbread code, but includes special APIs specifically for Amazon's use as well as a new UI layer and a special Amazon cloud-enabled browser named Silk.

Much like Apple has done for their iOS devices, the Kindle Fire's Appstore is curated, so as to prevent the introduction of malware, incompatibilities and badly performing applications into their ecosystem, something that the official Google Android Market lacks.

The jury is out as to whether or not Amazon's ecosystem will be successful, and frankly it's too early to tell. However it is estimated that millions of Kindle Fires have been sold during the holiday season and as many as twelve million may be sold in the next calendar year.

That's a lot of devices for Amazon to load up with apps and content, any way you look at it.

Assuming that the "Official" licensed Android tablets from the usual OEMs continue with a similar growth curve in 2012, Kindle Fire is still on track to become the top Android tablet device brand in North America and the world.

The sad thing is that all of this could have been Google and its OEMs domain.

Splits Between Preferred OEMs and Carrier Implementations

The wide proliferation of shovelware, varied implementations of Android versions and the overall inability to get software updates rolled out by the carriers and by the hardware manufacturers despite Google's stated commitment to rectify this problem back in May at Google I/O is another form of fractionalization that hurt Android in 2011 and projected an overall feeling of Multiple Personality Disorder.

As if everything documented in this article isn't enough to put a bad taste in everyone's mouth, 2011 also saw Google drive a wedge between itself and its Android handset/tablet OEMs by announcing back in August that it was going to purchase Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion.

Many industry observers (including our own Editor-in-Chief) saw this as a sensible decision, particularly for its potential in being an excellent mobile patent play as well as for improvements in vertical integration.

Indeed, both of these are areas in which competitor Apple currently holds the upper hand -- but Google hasn't done a particularly good job in communicating to the industry what it exactly plans to do with Motorola's device subsidiary when and if the purchase is approved by the US and EU governments.

Will Motorola end up with a "Most Favored Nation" status that will give it privileged access to Android code and other Google ICAP? Right now, Motorola seems to be in a bit of a limbo area.

Motorola's latest and greatest Android handset and tablet devices such as Droid Bionic, Droid Razr and Droid Xyboard so far have been subject to the same carrier shovel-ware abuse as all the other brands, and are lax in getting these devices upgraded to the current Ice Cream Sandwich software.

To add insult to injury, instead of Motorola, Google decided to use Samsung for its "Google Experience" smartphone with the Galaxy Nexus that launched this last week. Post-Merger, is Motorola going to be producing the Google Experience devices? We don't know.

Will Motorola only be producing Google Experience devices? We don't know.

Will Motorola continue to make hardware at all, or simply become a technology foundry for OEMs like Samsung, HTC and LG in order to provide vertical integration services? We don't know.

In here lies the problem. Nobody knows what's going to happen to Motorola, and Google hasn't done a very good job of calming its partners that are naturally feeling extremely edgy about the entire thing.

Will Google find a way to cure Android's Dissociative Identity Disorder in 2012? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Wi-Fi, Android, Google, Mobility, Networking, Open Source, Smartphones, Software Development, Tablets

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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