Google Android: It's time to end the fragmentation

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.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

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.

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