Google Android: It's time to end the fragmentation

Google Android: It's time to end the fragmentation

Summary: Google Android smartphones have only been around for 18 months, but already they're available with five different operating system versions. It's time to end the fragmentation.

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Google Android smartphones have only been on the market for 18 months, but already they resemble the European Union: a lot of languages, a partially shared currency, and political deadlock at every turn.

It's time to end the fragmentation.

If you don't understand what I'm talking about, you're not alone. Most consumers who purchase new Google Android handsets won't immediately realize that their device is different from that of their family member, friend or coworker.

But in a clever piece posted to Wired's Gadget Lab blog, reporter Priya Ganapati lays out the disconnect between consumers' expectations -- that their phone will be like their friends' -- and the reality.

Despite state-of-the art hardware and design, many new Android phones are shipped with older versions of the firmware, cutting off consumers’ access to newer features and apps that require the most recent versions.

In fact, it's shocking just how diverse the handsets are.

Here's the list of operating system versions and associated devices:

  • Android 1.0 -- Nov. 5, 2007 -- T-Mobile G1 (upgradeable to 1.6)
  • Android 1.5 -- April 30, 2009 -- Motorola Cliq, Motorola Cliq XT, Motorola Backflip, Samsung Moment, HTC Hero (upgradeable to 2.1), HTC Droid Eris
  • Android 1.6 -- Sept. 15, 2009 -- Motorola Devour, HTC Tattoo, Sony Xperia X10 (coming Q2 2010), Sony Ericsson Mini and Mini Pro, T-Mobile MyTouch 3G (only LE upgradeable to 2.1)
  • Android 2.0 -- Oct. 26, 2009 -- Motorola Droid
  • Android 2.1 -- January 12, 2010 -- HTC Nexus One

It's not easy to keep up, either. As Ganapati notes, it can take a year to develop new hardware, while Google has been rapidly updating the operating system -- four times in a year and a half.

Complicating the whole thing is that HTC and Motorola, the two biggest Android handset makers, have insisted on layering their own software on top of Android. For HTC, that's Sense UI. For Motorola, that's Motoblur. Both instances require development time by their makers, meaning users must wait for them to upgrade their own software before they can see an updated version of Android on their phones.

The icing on the cake is the recent inclusion of carrier-backed applications. The Motorola Devour is littered with Verizon pay-to-play apps that replace free Google versions, and the Backflip is the same with AT&T software that does the same.

So here's your recipe for the current Android "user experience":

  • 1 Android (either Cupcake, Donut or Eclair; Froyo or Gingerbread if available)
  • 5 handsets (Qualcomm acceptable; Snapdragon preferred)
  • 1/2 cup chopped manufacturer software
  • 1 pinch carrier apps

Preheat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Saute handsets in frying pan on low heat until caramelized. Add chopped manufacturer software, stir well to combine. Beat the Android and pour over handsets and manufacturer software. Cook gently over low heat until Android is almost set, then slip in broiler for two minutes until manufacturer software has begun to brown. Cut into wedges and top with carrier apps.

I don't know about you, but I think this is a recipe that teeters on disaster. (Or frittata!)

The manufacturers insist that their software layers solve problems for users, and to some extent, they do. But they also create many more, and it's extremely frustrating to purchase a brand new Android phone -- the same OS as the Droid! You know, from TV! -- and not be able to download the same apps as your buddy with the real deal.

And don't get me started on carrier software, by the way. It neither solves problems nor improves upon Google's current offerings, and is a shameless revenue-generating scheme on top of what's already a higher-margin product.

It's easy to get lost in the newer-better-shinier gadget race as these devices are announced, but what is fundamentally the problem with these devices is not slower hardware -- which is understandable, given production lead time -- but the simple inconsistency of experience.

I can get turn-by-turn directions on a Motorola Droid out of the box. I can get the same thing on a Motorola Devour, but I have to download it from Android Market first. I can't get them at all on the Motorola Cliq XT.

And you know what? In terms of launch dates, the Droid is the oldest handset of the bunch. The Devour's brand new, and the Cliq XT isn't even for sale yet.

That's despicable -- not because the Droid is a premium device and the others are not, but because smartphones are inherently connected devices that rely on common underpinnings to function appropriately.

It's not just Google Navigation, either: it's Android Market, it's menu options and icons and home screens, it's Motoblur or not.

All I hear from manufacturers is how much they're concerned about addressing the user experience. Yet we have gaping holes in the Android fabric that digitally segregate users.

Android 2.x? First class. Android 1.6? Second class. Android 1.5? Steerage.

I don't mean to overdramatize things, because, well, they're just phones. But it's unnerving to see minor, not-obvious-until-you-need-it changes as these handsets are launched.

Here's Ganapati, again:

Sometimes, putting an older version of the Android OS on the phone is a shrewd marketing decision, says Sutton. Older versions of the Android operating system allow telecom carriers to charge for features that would be otherwise available for free, like navigation.

It's not just Android, either -- even Apple's iPhone 3GS has distinguished itself from its predecessor with voice control, compass and video camera, aside from an improved processor, storage, battery life and camera.

But Apple only has two handsets on the market on one carrier. Android has more than a dozen from several different manufacturers across all four U.S. carriers, with everyone along the way trying to make a money-making impression on the user.

It's an utterly confusing whisper-down-the-lane exercise that results in a garbled product.

Or, as Ian Betteridge puts it at Technovia:

Android is beginning its spiral into the world of crapware, software which serves no real purpose other than to give marketing people a “differentiator” which doesn't really meet a customer need. And just as it has on the PC, the situation will get worse before it gets better – with the unfortunate issue that crapware is even harder to get rid of on a phone than it is on a computer.

Is Google to blame for all this? (After all, its laissez-faire attitude toward oversight has allowed these inconsistencies to flourish.) I think so, and I think the company's unwillingness to even get near Apple's draconian approach has actually harmed the ecosystem as a whole.

It's now clear that Android was originally released in a somewhat half-baked fashion, as the frequent and sudden rash of updates last year indicates. Yet I wonder whether Google should have held the Android reins a bit tighter at the onset, and only consider relaxing them once the ecosystem settles down from its incredible growth.

So what's a customer locked into a two-year contract to do? Answer: absolutely nothing.

I'm bullish on Android as a whole, and I do like many aspects of it. But I'm concerned that there isn't a singular guiding force behind the platform's growth -- the kind that keeps the Android community feeling like, well, a community.

Topics: Smartphones, Android, Google, Hardware, Mobile OS, Mobility, Software

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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Talkback

33 comments
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  • RE: Google Android: It's time to end the fragmentation

    Well in some ways, people seemed to have thought that's
    what the Nexus One was somehow supposed to do (provide a
    guiding force - or more an example to follow). But we'll
    have to see how it plays out. (A few months back I
    upgraded from a G1 to the Nexus One, primarily to get 2.X
    without have to wait a massive amount of time)
    rfdparker2002
    • Android is the new Windows Mobile!

      Android is now suffering precisely what drove Windows Mobile customers around the bend: inconsistent performance across too wide a range of devices with too many wildly different form-factors and capabilities running an OS burdened with a mountain of unnecessary crapware that is a blatant cash-grab by the carriers.

      I wonder who will be the first carrier to wake up and realize that they could differentiate themselves by selling virgin devices that ship performing as the OS vendor and/or OEM intended.
      de-void-21165590650301806002836337787023
  • There is no fragmentation...

    There is no "fragmentation" in the terms of what it actually means. Yes, as of now, there are several different versions of Android but its no different than the various versions of Windows (Now Linux itself yes is very fragmented). I also noticed that you failed to mention that ALL Android devices are being brought up to Android 2.0 (even the G1, something Apple would never touch). Please dont call something "fragmented" when its clearly not. Thanks.

    Oh and the Motorola Droid is Android 2.0.1 :)

    And another thing - Dont compare the Moto Devour to the horribly neutered Backflip on AT&T. AT&T destroyed that phone by killing ALL google services and replacing them with Yahoo and generally making the android experience "suck" for those on the AT&T network so that their precious iPhone doesnt get the REAL competition on the same carrier. The devour can do Google Navigation even though its Android 1.5 underneith but that doesnt really matter because it has MotoBlur on top of it. I think having phones like this is useful because it brings a phone to the "less technical" or "non-geek" of the bunch, whereas the Moto Droid, is a total geek device :)
    JT82
    • Don't Compare to my Total Geek Device

      O-kay...you're the boss. We won't compare it, even though it is called an Android.

      And we won't notice that the Google phone isn't quite the same thing as the Motorola either. It's always best to stay step away from the crazy people.
      SpectreWriter
    • Not the real problem

      The real problem, as Google attempted to point
      out, is that the carriers have the ultimate
      ability to screw everything up, just like AT&T
      did by deliberately oversubscribing their
      service because they knew they were single
      source on the iPhone and iPhone users on a 2
      year contract were stuck! The device and the
      plan should be separate decisions. Hell, the
      discount on the phone is only called a
      "discount" because if you thought of it in
      terms of a loan it would have been illegal
      under the OLD lending laws.
      tkejlboom
    • BS - Apple fully support iPhone OS 3.0 on the first gen iPhone

      "Android devices are being brought up to Android 2.0 (even the G1,
      something Apple would never touch)"

      BS - Apple fully support iPhone OS 3.0 on the first gen iPhone, and it
      supported them with the first release of OS 3.0... unlike how long it's
      taken to get the newest version of Andrioid onto many older (and some
      newer) phones.
      draymis
  • RE: Google Android: It's time to end the fragmentation

    My wife and I develop Android applications. If done carefully and tested properly you can develop a single application that runs across ALL Android platforms (1.5 through 2.1) seamlessly. And yes, there are differences between each version but as stated - the application need only check internal phone versions a run code accordingly. One app example is the mPayy Financial Android App we developed (available from Google Marketplace). It's a single application that runs on all platforms. We are adding a small update this week so that 2.1 is also supported.

    So if an application isn't running on all platforms - don't blame the phone - blame the developer.

    iprentice
    • But the more work needed to make it work

      on all vesions is just that: more work.

      If it gets too bad, will developers want to bother with all the extra work and testing, or just more to a more unified platform, like the iPhone?
      John Zern
  • There is no fragmentation

    Here?s the list of operating system versions and associated devices:

    * Android 1.0 ? Nov. 5, 2007 ? T-Mobile G1 (upgradeable to 1.6)
    * Android 1.5 ? April 30, 2009 ? Motorola Cliq, Motorola Cliq XT, Motorola Backflip, Samsung Moment, HTC Hero (upgradeable to 2.1), HTC Droid Eris
    * Android 1.6 ? Sept. 15, 2009 ? Motorola Devour, HTC Tattoo, Sony Xperia X10 (coming Q2 2010), Sony Ericsson Mini and Mini Pro, T-Mobile MyTouch 3G (only LE upgradeable to 2.1)
    * Android 2.0 ? Oct. 26, 2009 ? Motorola Droid
    * Android 2.1 ? January 12, 2010 ? HTC Nexus One

    You may have noticed that these are upgrades of the same OS called Android. So what you are complaining about is what I would call progress!

    Android is evolving at an incredible speed. The Nexus one is now the leader of the bunch and the number 1 smart-phone all other manufacturers, including apple, are looking up to.... The bench mark is the nexus one and the next i-phone may be - or may not be - a nexus-one-killer...

    If google keeps innovating at this pace, well then they will own the smart-phone-market in a few years!
    kikl
  • Evolution, Revolution, Dictatorship...

    The more control Google gives developers and outside market players, the closer to evolution you get with several different branches competing.

    More control in place but still leave some room for outside development and you will get a revolutionary cycle. A plateau of sameness punctuated by some really striking changes.

    Lock the platform up tight and you will have a single vision product that might be very good or might be very bad.

    None of these approaches are all good or all bad.

    You want an open standard with robust SDKs, APIs, and even some source code open to the public? You get a hodgepodge forked branches, versions, and flavors. Either the platforms become so unwieldy they fall apart under their own weight or they self sort into a few robust designs that most people in the market can use/like.

    Don't like the confusion of more open developments? Lock down the source code, use only licensed SDKs and APIs. Certify applications but don't monitor application function or content. You will get a fairly stable platform that won't have to many forks or branches in it. Most applications will run but they might be expensive depending on how wide the development community is.

    Really want something that just works with out having to mess around with the device at all? Go with a completely closed system. Tightly controlled code and a tightly controlled development community. You might not get the choice in content you want but everything will work together by design. You might have to fight with the platform owner to get the kinds of content you want but that is a social/legal matter.
    mr1972
  • RE: Google Android: It's time to end the fragmentation

    Considering that android is linux based everyone knew it was going to be fragmented. Having Google behind this project just made it worse.
    Loverock Davidson
    • really loverock?

      Dude you have no idea what you are talking about. Android is no more
      "fragmented" than what Windows is. Stop trying to be a troll.
      JT82
      • Really!

        Android is linux, linux is fragmented. Its a very very very very very very very very very simple concept that you just can't seem to grasp. No one mentioned Windows, I didn't, the article didn't, only you did. I'll take that as envy on your part.
        Loverock Davidson
        • I mean i know are trolling but dude..

          Alright so I've abandoned any idea that you are a reasonable person. Sure Android is Linux based, however, it is very compariable to Windows in that its just on different Versions. Same way we have Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7. If Android is "fragmented" so is the Windows ecosystem.

          No one mentioned Windows, I did because the comparison (versioning) is there. If you fail to see this well you cant get beyond your own zealotry, which is sad. I use both linux and Windows.
          JT82
          • What are you people..

            ..working on?
            Google is fooling you in thinking this is an
            peoples OS.
            They are an Multi Billion Multinational. How hard
            would it be for them to pay to develop an Mobile
            platform?

            The only thing Google is "Rooting" is you people
            and developers.
            It has all been done before, this is old school
            stuff.

            You are all working on the wrong project.

            Don't be an Android!
            boweb
  • RE: Google Android: It's time to end the fragmentation

    There are too many other smartphones on the market with their own OS.

    Why bother with Android fragmentation/update/evolution?

    You have so many alternatives, maybe one of then match with your life style, or your "I don't care about free software development bul@#$it".

    Let MS or Apple define what your phone can or can't do/run.

    Don't sentence if you don't understand FS and you don't use or like it. Just follow your way and let then make her job.
    cwagner@...
  • RE: Google Android: It's time to end the fragmentation

    And standards to eliminate all the crapware applications.
    geraldoh
  • RE: Google Android: It's time to end the fragmentation

    I am not an iPhone developer but I know they also had growing pains and had platform versions including 1.2, 2.1, 2.0, 2.2, 3.0 , 3.1 and 3.2.

    If you are saying that if I developed an iPhone Application on the base 1.2 iPhone Platform and my iPhone app works perfectly fine on the latest platform without "more work" (and not bothering to test it beyond 1.2) then you would be correct.

    As a developer with over 30 years experience, I can tell you that a good developer will ALWAYS test and retest so that their application keeps up with the latest platform. I don't think I have ever developed an application I expected to work "forever" on any device or given version of operating system - especially one a new as Android.

    That "extra work" is what makes good applications and ensures longevity.

    The changes between operating systems that may affect your application depend on what services you use. For the most part in my applications it has been the "contacts" database access that has changed between Android platform versions.

    Just so you know - it took one hour (of extra work) to figure out the difference between Android 2.0 and Android 2.1 and correct.
    iprentice
  • You want to have your cake...

    of a free liberated Yet unfragmented system as well as a
    unified single system. Those are contradictory requirements
    and will never happen. Apple has chosen the walled garden
    approach. It appears to be working very well for them. Get
    an iPhone if you would like to have a guarantee of your
    phone being totally compatible with that of your friends who
    also have an iPhone.
    arminw
    • Your right on the money

      Apple has it's far share of updates, but it's not a problem keeping track
      of them. Its all done by iTunes. The copy cat lovers will pay for buying
      into "The iPhone killer" phones . Apps that don't work well, Apps that
      only work on some manufactured cell's but not others. The only thing
      that matters to me, is a cell phone the works when I need it and Apple
      will always have that in mind.

      Thanks Apple.
      MacNewton