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03 March 2010, 16:55

Of Android and the Fear of Fragmentation

by Glyn Moody

Glyn Moody takes a look at the state of Android, at the worries that the platform is fragmenting and why it isn't a bad thing.

Many were sceptical when Google announced that it was launching another mobile platform. After all, some said, there are already multiple offerings out there, and Google had precisely no track record in this sector: surely it was heading for a fall? The launch of the first Android phone, the G1, seemed to confirm these doubts. Although capable enough, it was clearly not going to carry Android through into the mainstream.

How things can change in a year. The Mobile World Congress, which has just finished in Barcelona, turned into an Android orgy. Here's a typical report:

This year at the Mobile World Congress is the year of Android. Google’s operating system debuted here two years ago. Last year we expected a slew of handsets, and saw just a trickle. This year, Android is everywhere, on handsets from HTC, Motorola, Sony Ericsson, and even Garmin-Asus. If this were the world of computers, Android would be in a similar position to Windows: Pretty much every manufacturer puts it on its machines.

That last sentence is extraordinary, but it's a comparison that many have made. What makes it rich in irony, of course, is the fact that purring away under the bonnet of Android is the sleek perfection of Linux.

But of course people have already started looking for flies in the ointment. In particular, many think that Android's success is of the wrong kind:

Every few days, another Google Android device is announced, as hardware makers and wireless carriers rally around the mobile operating system as the de facto smartphone platform alternative to Apple's limited-availability iPhone and RIM's limited-capability BlackBerry.

That flood of options should be a good thing -- but it's not. In fact, it's a self-destruction derby in action, as phones come out with different versions of the Android OS, with no clear upgrade strategy for either the operating system or the applications users have installed, and with inconsistent deployment of core features. In short, the Android platform is turning out not to be a platform at all, but merely a starting point for a universe of incompatible devices.

There are a number of separate issues here. It's certainly true that different versions of the Android stack are being deployed, but that's a reflection of the extremely rapid pace of development, and the fact that mobile companies are keen to use the newest version when they announce and roll out their handsets. Here's Google's view:

Keep in mind that part of the impetus for the Android foray in the first place was to get mobile OS development moving more rapidly. So here we are, with rapid iterations (multiple OS upgrades in under a year!) and yes, some growing pains.

This is also a reflection of the open source way – releasing early, and releasing often. It means that jumps between versions are smaller, and therefore easier to accommodate. Here's what happens on traditional software platforms, like Windows Mobile:

news comes out that owners of HTC HD2, a new Windows Mobile 6.5 device which seems more than capable of running the new software, won’t be able to upgrade to Windows Phone 7 software. Furthermore, according to APC, Microsoft’s General Manager for Mobile Communications Business in the Asia-Pacific region, Natasha Kwan, said that none of the current phones have what it takes.

“Because we have very specific requirements for Windows Phone 7 Series the current phones we have right now will not be upgradable,” she said.

Contrast that with this:

There has been some confusion over which phones would receive an Android 2.1 update and I am partially to blame. I authored a post way back in August that called into question the G1’s ability to receive future updates. Google eventually found a way to make Donut (Android 1.6) fit on the G1 and I was proven wrong. Since that time, I have maintained that the full version Eclair (Android 2.x) may not be possible on the T-Mobile G1.

After talking with several inside sources familiar with the matter, I would like to report that every Android phone currently released in the United States will be receiving an upgrade to Android 2.1.

Some phones could be missing features of Android 2.1 (live wallpapers), but they will all have an Android 2.1 firmware.

Now, it's true that some phones will need to be wiped to do this, and others may require – horror of horrors – a PC running Windows to carry out the upgrade. But the point is that according to the above report – which is specifically about the US market - every Android phone will be upgraded.

Next: The Upgrade Effect

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