Google Confronts Android Fragmentation

Carl Weinschenk
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Ten Handy Android Apps You'll Use Everyday

Google's Android has put itself in the position of being the cat herder of the mobile operating system world. The biggest cloud on the horizon for it, therefore, is the near-certainty that not all the cats will go in the same direction. This, to cat owners, is known as business as usual. To OS pros, it is called fragmentation.

The idea is simple: There are many versions of the operating system and many vendors, each developing multiple end-user devices. Each has its own peculiarities. Developers, therefore, can be hard-pressed to figure out precisely how to approach writing applications. This is precisely the opposite of Apple, which controls its iOS with exceeding precision.

The danger is that developers will decide that Android, despite its promise, isn't worth the hassle and go with iOS or another OS. GigaOM reports that Google's Android Market is taking a proactive stance to the issue by listing the user's registered devices that support a particular application at that app's page. That handle guide, Kevin Tofel reports, works as long as the customer signs in through a Google account.

While it's a useful tool, Google still has a lot of work to do to meet the fragmentation challenge. A prime example is how Android is struggling with Netflix. Connected Planet reported in mid May that only five phones support the Android Netflix application. The explanation from the Netflix product team, reprinted in the story, isn't reassuring to Google. It read, in part:

One of these challenges is the lack of standard streaming playback features that the Netflix application can use to gain broad penetration across all available Android phones. In the absence of standardization, we have to test each individual handset and launch only on those that can support playback.

In other words, Android is skating on some pretty thin ice. The landscape is far too competitive to expect developers to do the kinds of one-off customization work implied here.

The good news for Androids everywhere is that the problem may be solving itself. Mashable has posted a chart that it picked up from Android developers that says 64.6 percent of devices run Froyo, which is Android 2.2 and another 21.2 percent run Eclair, Android 2.1. ( Android names their operating systems after desserts.) This suggests that the company, the developer community, carriers and/or device makers are seeking more uniformity in successive versions of the OS. If so, the problem gradually will recede.

It is understandable if IT departments don't pay too much attention, since the dangers of fragmentation will initially be felt on the consumer side. It's repeatedly been shown, however, that we live in an increasingly complex and interconnected world. If the challenges are not confronted, the lack of standardization will become a problem for corporate Android developers and, eventually, will impact the success of the OS in the business sector.

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