Android Fragmentation – do we really have a choice?

Last week Ryan posted an article about Android Fragmentation and how it gave phone buyers choice within the Android platform and while I agreed with lots of the points we made in the piece, there are parts I disagree with.
I’m a big Android fan, I own a Motorola Milestone which currently runs Android 2.1. For the last 6 months our friends over at Moto have been promising us an update to Froyo (2.2), and the longer it goes on the more it feels like we’re never going to get it. It’s not a massive issue but it would be nice to be able to play Flash content (something the phone was sold claiming to be capable of), save my apps to an SD Card and a few other performance improvements. While trawling the many Android forums of the internet to try and get an update,  I started to consider Android’s fragmentation situation and whether or not it’s an issue of choice.

For starters, most people who buy Android don’t know they’re buying Android. They’ve gone into Carphone Warehouse and asked ‘How much is an iPhone gonna set me back?’, then once they’ve picked themselves off the floor ‘Erm, have you got anything cheaper, that I can still use to go on Facebook?’ so they get sold an Android device. This isn’t a bad thing, I just think that it’s only a small group of geeks, who I’d lump myself in with, that are genuinely bothered about the OS their smartphone is running; or, to use our analogy from the last piece, are interested in venturing down the alleys for, arguably, a more interesting phone experience.

I’d also argue that choice is a decision based on the qualities of something. There is nothing that Android 1.5 offers that 2.2 doesn’t, so why would you choose it? If there were multiple versions of Android running side-by-side but each one excelled in different areas, then it would be a choice of which version of the OS best suits you. Somebody who uses their phone for work a lot might choose a version optimised for enterprise that’s better at email and set up to connect to Exchange; this would be more fitting for their needs than a more social-centric version aimed at someone who just wants to tweet and update their Facebook status regularly. But this isn’t the case, there have been leaps forward in UI and performance at every upgrade stage of Android that have, for all intents and purposes, made the previous version obsolete.

What about price? Are older versions of Android running on lower spec hardware, bringing the price down for the customer and giving them the ‘choice’ to spend less? Android is free, whichever version a manufacturer chooses to use, and even though there have been some hardware restrictions across the versions, you can walk into a phone shop today and get an HTC Wildfire running Android 2.1 for free, if you sign up to a £15/month contract. You’re going to struggle to find a cheaper deal than that, running any version of Android.

Manufacturers have tried to differentiate by adding their own skins to Android and I’d agree that HTC’s Sense UI is a great example of this. But what I’d also point out is that it’s also the only skin that could realistically claim to have improved on stock Android. The rest (I’m looking  at you Sony, Motorola, Samsung!) have made clunky, unintuitive UI changes, added masses of software that take up much needed space on your SD card and are usually difficult, if not impossible, to remove from the phone, or simply just ways to try and sell you things that are, in the most, inferior to products available cheaper in the Android market. This also means that any updates Google release for Android are held up even further from filtering down as phone owners as they have to wait for the manufacturers to skin the new versions and then check for bugs.

That’s not to say things aren’t improving, although I’m still waiting for my Milestone to get it’s elusive Froyo (2.2) update. I think Google’s best move has been removing some of it’s key apps from the update cycle. So Gmail, Maps, etc. are usually updated for everyone running 2.0 or above which means most Android users can have access to the latest versions of these favourites, even if we’ve not got the full version of the latest Android OS.

Google have to reduce the current state of fragmentation if they want Android to keep increasing its market share. People who own phones with older versions of Android, who can;t use the latest and greatest features the OS has to offer, are already starting to grumble and this will only get worse as updates from Google become more regular and seem to be larger and larger leaps forward in functionality. This can only have a negative affect when people come to buying their next phone.

I think we can already see Google taking this seriously with the bunch of Honeycombe (Android 3.0) tablets that have been announced over the last few weeks all looking very similar with no manufacturer skins and almost identical specs and sizes, and only time will tell if this is actually a real problem for Android or something that Google can use to it’s advantage and become stronger because of.  I personally hope it’s the latter but worry that Apple’s iOS, Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 or HP’s soon to be launched WebOS devices may take advantage of this period of transition for Android.

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