Fragmentation of Android, or the race for innovation?

Original author: Michael Gartenberg
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AndroidA few weeks ago, I was able to chat with Android father Andy Rubin. Andy is a very smart person who managed to work on projects in Apple, General Magic, WebTV and Danger before launching Android. We managed to discuss a lot of things, and in particular took the time to the topic of Android fragmentation. Some time ago, I described my view of the fragmentation of Android as a platform that can be compared with the advent of a lot of desktop Linux distributions, and the potential of the OS will turn into a pile of devices with specific modifications from manufacturers that have nothing to do with each other. I spent a lot of time thinking over our conversation with Andy, which resulted in repeated rewriting of this column.

To date, there are at least five different versions of Android devices. In order to differentiate devices on the market, manufacturers often resort to strong customization of the interface, which in turn complicates the migration to new versions of Android several times. New device releases and firmware updates become obsolete within a few weeks. For example, at the time of the release of Google Nexus One could launch a series of interesting applications, such as Google Earth, at the same time, the fairly new Droid could not afford it, since it worked on Android 2.0, and not 2.1. Manufacturers of Tablet devices are forced to come up with a variety of replacements for the Android Market, since Google prohibits the installation of Market on devices of this kind.

During our conversation, Andy identified some of the classic symptoms of platform fragmentation. First, the old API refuses to work on new OS releases. Secondly, different versions of the Android Market offer a different set of applications, which in turn leads to a loss of platform uniformity. These two facts are true for both desktop versions of Linux and Android.


Andy's point of view is quite simple. The situation with old Android devices that cannot be updated to new versions of the OS, or do not support new applications is no different from the situation with the iPhone 2007, which will not be updated to OS 4.0. This is not fragmentation, this is moral aging. Based on this, obsolescence of devices is now many times faster than ever. The main reason for all this is the high speed with which Google creates innovation. And they are not going to stop there.

Does this agility affect Google partners in a negative way? Of course. The only difference is that Google believes that their own affiliate model is currently fundamentally different from any others. None of the vendors pays a cent; therefore, the relationship between partners is built in a completely different way, in contrast to the situation when the manufacturer licenses the OS. In the case of Microsoft, each supplier must pay a certain royalty in order to be part of the Windows Mobile ecosystem. Thus, all vendors are considered equal, which is actually a bad idea. Some vendors of WinMo devices are developing really excellent phones, while most others are producing mediocre crafts that expose the platform in a negative light. Not all vendors can keep pace,

Google has a completely different opinion on this. Android is not a summer camp for suppliers. Google treats all vendors as equals, but it will not slow down in the pursuit of innovation in favor of weak players. Constantly raising the bar for hardware and software requirements, Google maintains its pace of innovation, and thereby clearly differentiates devices on the market. By releasing the Nexus One, Google did not seek to break sales records. The company pursued another goal - to raise the bar of iron Android-devices to a new level. As you know: if you want to do well, do it yourself.

What is the end result? A high rate of innovation, which is not going to slow down, thereby raising rates to a very high level. Thus, what could be represented by market fragmentation is actually the result of a shortened innovation cycle. Older devices exit the game much faster than before. However, this is the price that everyone pays in order to introduce new innovations in the market as quickly as possible. Why don't tablet manufacturers have access to the Android Market? Google’s argument is simple: devices of this kind that are incompatible with the current hardware standards of the platform can very quickly lead to fragmentation. Keep up the good work, but don’t try to jump above your head, Google tells them.

I probably agree that Android is not a fragmented platform. At least in the classical sense, but in practice the result remains the same. Devices become obsolete in a matter of months, and the best partners of Google do not keep up with the weekly releases of the platform. Even worse, users feel at the forefront: there is a dizzying amount of devices on the market that are considered obsolete at the time of purchase, as their platform is no longer relevant. Which in turn makes users postpone buying or buying a competitor’s device.

The whole blame is the open nature of Android. Google in no way controls how exactly vendors dispose of Android, but it constantly raises the pace and vision of the development prospects of the platform. In the end, Google partners and consumers of their products will determine whether this attitude is acceptable to the software platform or not.

From translator

Of course, the innovations that Google introduced at the latest Google IO are pleasing to the eye, but what is their price? This price we pay with you, as well as device manufacturers. Having got involved in a game called Android, vendors get not only all the benefits of Android, but also a huge amount of risks. Playing on the side of Google, manufacturers are directly dependent on the company, as well as on users, thus becoming a hostage to the situation. After all, the risk is not only that completely fresh devices automatically become obsolete with the release of the new version of Android (Moto Droid, HTC Desire, HTC Legend). Manufacturers also run the risk of losing customer loyalty, as the development cycles of Google and the end vendors do not match, and the huge marketing flywheel Google / Android works at its full potential.

What is the way out of this situation? Over time, the innovation race is likely to stop, or move to the level of Tablet-devices. Will manufacturers release Android devices as fast as they do now? Or will they take over Apple’s business model by releasing one device model each year, and the related services will make the main income? All these questions remain open, only one thing is clear. Any manufacturer will try to crush the entire infrastructure for themselves. The first sign was Samsung Bada, HTC is also developing its own alternative to Android / Bada. What it will result in will be shown by time, however Google needs to take measures, otherwise the platform will lose the trust of users and manufacturers.

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