On fragmentation, Google still comes up short against Apple

Google is trying to put fragmentation behind it by unifying smartphone and tablet operating systems and guaranteeing future compatibility for some devices. But on balance, Google's efforts still come up short compared to Apple.
Written by Peter Cohen, Inactive

Google I/O, the developer conference in San Francisco, is in full swing this week. At a keynote presentation on Tuesday morning the company made several announcements aimed at stopping detractors who say that Android has become too fragmented.

Google said that it plans to unify Android operating systems - the "Gingerbread" version that now powers Android-based smartphones and the "Honeycomb" version now featured on tablets - into a single release code-named "Ice Cream Sandwich" that will be released sometime in the fourth calendar quarter of 2011.

Apple experienced similar growing pains with iOS - the iPhone saw iOS 4 long before the iPad did. The two devices ran different versions of the operating system until iOS 4.2's release in November, 2010 - seven months after the iPad's initial release. Assuming Google delivers on time, it will have a unified Android operating system available about a year after Apple unified iOS.

"Our goal with Ice Cream Sandwich is to deliver one operating system that works everywhere, regardless of device," writes Hugo Barra, Product Management Director, Android, in a new blog post, and that's a worthy goal. And as evidenced by Apple's experience, it can be done right.

But there's a big stumbling block in the way: the ugly spectre of fragmentation. Google now counts more than 310 Android devices on the market, running eight different major releases of Android.

It's a nightmare for developers to figure out what device is running which operating system and planning spec for their software accordingly. It's also a morass for consumers to wade through - they don't know if the handset they just bought will be upgradable with new features and capabilities that Google exposes in new Android releases.

To counter that, Google has announced a new program from participating companies to guarantee that new handsets will be compatible with new Android updates for 18 months after they're released, "as long as the hardware allows."

That's a pretty big if, from what I can see. What's more, that leaves absent from this the two and a half years' worth of customers who have already bought Android devices with no such future-proofing assurance.

When it comes to this compatibility issue, Google's leaving a lot of wiggle room both for itself and for its handset makers and carrier partners - the actual implementation is bound to create a lot of headaches for everyone involved.

Certainly, Apple users have seen some older handsets - particularly the original iPhone and its immediate successor, the iPhone 3G - drop off the radar for software upgrades and enhancements. But it's safe to say that the concept of fragmentation is practically alien to the Apple ecosystem, especially compared to the rampant compatibility issues and head-scratchers that pop up in the Android world.


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