in the form of fragmentation. But the platform is not alone and
neither is it struggling for OEMs wanting to get on board.
Android is beginning to feel its first growing pains in the form of fragmentation. But the platform is not alone and neither is it struggling for OEMs wanting to get on board.
In recent months, Android, or at least one of its many forms, has emerged as possibly the first viable candidate to take on the iPhone. With Google’s backing, the open-sourced platform has managed to give a boost to Motorola’s handset division.
But as the hype subsides, Android finally may be coming back down to earth, as recent rumblings of fragmentation issues have begun. The criticisms are aimed at possible complications brought on by multiple versions of the OS (i.e. Cupcake, Donut, Eclair). When combined with handsets from multiple vendors that run slightly tweaked versions of the OS, Android’s “openness” takes on a whole new meaning for developers when it comes to making their apps compatible with every device downloading from the Android Market.
Faraz Syed, CEO of DeviceAnywhere, believes that fragmentation on any open platform is inevitable. “Early on, when the Android platform came out, I was one of the first ones to say that this platform was going to go in the direction of fragmentation, contrary to what the stated purpose was, which was to provide a single platform that all developers could build to,” Syed says.
By necessity, OEMs have to differentiate their device. In geek parlance, being branded the “vanilla Android” handset has become a subtle dig. Sayed says that hardware, as well as unique UI overlays, like Moto Blur and HTC’s Sense, are examples of different ways OEMs are attempting to separate themselves from the flock.
“In my opinion, fragmentation is inevitable when an ecosystem is set in this way, where even if it’s an open-source system, there are driving motivations that cause specialization to occur,” he says.
“Moto Blur is a great example. That’s the selling point on the Moto CLIQ, but if developers want to benefit from that, they have to build special stuff for that. So, for example, a developer who develops an app for the CLIQ can’t take that same app and just run it on the HTC Dream.”
Sayed says that while a lot of DeviceAnywhere’s developer customers were initially very excited about the Android platform, he’s seen a readjustment of expectations in recent months.
“They’ve very quickly realized that it’s not just build for Android. It’s build for HTC Dream, or build for Motorola CLIQ, or build for HTC Hero. So then they have to take a step back, so it’s really been a resetting of expectations,” he said.
THE MERITS OF APPLE
Everyone brings up Apple as the case in point for a fragmentation-resistant platform. Apple undoubtedly benefits from a proprietary OS that it controls for use on its own limited portfolio of devices. Apple doesn’t have to deal with unexpected variations in screen size, keyboards, trackballs or UI. It just rolls out new versions of the iPhone OS, and that pretty much works on all of its handsets.
Lydia Heitman, marketing director for Freeverse, a developer of iPhone applications that only recently began considering Android, says the difficulties of Android when compared to Apple are many. “Part of what makes iPhone so great to develop for is that it’s not a constantly moving target… The same build of a game or application is going to work on all iPhones or iPod touches,” she says, adding that Android variations in hardware and OS versions make it an extremely time consuming and costly platform.
Freeverse has ported one game to Android but is holding off on doing more, noting that many of its games would have to be completely rewritten to accommodate Android handsets that don’t have an accelerometer, something many of Freeverse’s games take advantage of on the iPhone.
ANDROID BENEFITS FROM DIVERSITY
But while much of Apple’s strengths may lie in the homogeny of its hardware and software, its developers could suffer from a case of all-eggs-in-one-basket. Chris Buerger, senior director of product management for Mobile Linux at Wind River, argues that hardware fragmentation may be one of Android’s greatest strengths.
“I think the biggest advantage of Android that I see is that you are not tied to the success or failure of an individual hardware platform. With Android, there are now fully a dozen different manufacturers working on Android, including all of the top manufacturers with the exception of perhaps Nokia,” he says.
Beyond simply having more handsets to develop for, Buerger says that the platform’s low cost also lends itself to proliferation on more than just smartphones. “Today, Android suddenly is a smartphone-centric platform. But what you’re already starting to see with the CLIQ, they’re moving more into the lower end of the smartphone, maybe even into feature phone,” he says.
HTML 5 TO THE RESCUE?
Roger Entner, senior vice president of the communications sector at IAG Nielsen, doesn’t think that Android is at any risk of losing developers as more devices and versions of the OS emerge. He’s cautiously optimistic that the platform will fulfill Gartner’s prediction of seizing the No. 2 spot in market share globally by 2012.
Entner offers the point of view that fragmentation is less and less an issue because of one emerging technology. “The real topic that we should be talking about here is HTML 5,” he says, suggesting that the new version of HTML will solve developers’ woes by allowing them to program their applications for the mobile browser.
“With HTML 5, worst-case scenario, you have to build your app to five browsers: Opera, IE, Mozilla, Safari and Google. That’s it.”
Entner says that HTML 5 will so revolutionize the industry that it will render the proprietary app store a thing of the past, an evolutionary dead end if you will. In the end, he says, Android may have actually eliminated some fragmentation within the mobile space.
“Whenever a new OS comes out, at least one or two go away. With Android, the myriad of Motorola OSs went out the window, because they said ‘OK, we do Android and only Android, until we die,’” Entner says.
CHANCES FOR SURVIVAL
It’s probably the magnitude of interest in Android that leaves many less than concerned about fragmentation within the platform. Big players like Verizon Wireless, Motorola, HTC and Samsung getting involved on the ground floor has proved especially advantageous for Android. Google acting as parental figure for the platform probably hasn’t hurt, either.
Kevin Burden, device analyst for ABI Research, says that Android is exactly what it was meant to be and while he’s not sure any one platform can live up to the kind of hype generated recently by the Droid, it’s a safe bet that Google’s platform will survive.
“The fragmentation is exactly what gets handset manufacturers jazzed about Android. Because, look, one of the biggest problems facing handset manufacturers today is how do they differentiate their offering. They’re allowed to use this Linux-based platform, most of the work is already done and yet they can still make their phone look different than everyone else’s,” Burden says.
Burden says he takes a more conservative look than Gartner’s 14.5 percent market share in just a couple of years. While fragmentation will be overcome, it also means there will be some variation in the quality of these devices.
“There’s going be some that hit and some that fall down…You can’t assume that every Android phone is going to be wildly successful. That just can’t be the case.”