AT&T’s announcement yesterday that it will absolutely, positively be upgrading all 2011-bought Android phones to 2.3 (Gingerbread) is at least a step in the right direction towards easing the increasingly evident pain of fragmentation on Google’s mobile platform.
But promises from carriers, especially ones that ensure updates for just six devices (within a very cushy window of five months), is just a Band-Aid for a problem that must be solved by Google itself. When customers buy a high-end smartphone and commit to a two-year contract, on the promise that their device will be upgraded to the next iteration of Android, they shouldn’t have to wait a year for said update (hello, Samsung Captivate to Froyo).
I spent almost six months with an Android device and was amazed at the problems I had in getting certain apps to run on my Captivate (running Eclaire at the time). Coming fresh off a long stint with an iPhone 4, I was absolutely baffled by the inconsistencies across the apps I download from the Android Market. And it’s not just on mid-range devices that this is a problem. It took Netflix months before it got around to supporting streaming content on my friend’s HTC Thunderbolt.
I’ve talked to a number of analysts and developers recently that suggest its high time Google sets some parameters for Android hardware, as a way of curtailing fragmentation (i.e. standard screen size, physical buttons, etc.) and allowing more consistency in apps and platform rollouts. I know Google wears its “open” badge with pride, but even ranchers built fences in the Wild West.
I was recently reading a short piece by John Biggs over at TechCrunch about Android’s “dirty little secret,” which comes in the form of 30 to 40 percent return rates on “some” devices. By contrast, Apple garners a 1.7 percent return rate on the iPhone, and that’s after Antennagate. Biggs cites “people familiar with the matter,” so take those numbers with a grain of salt, but I’m guessing they’re not too far off the mark.
As great as the best Android smartphone might be (my friend’s Thunderbolt is a beautiful phone), the entirety of the user experience is anything but seamless. I’m not even trashing Android here. I would love a refined alternative to the iPhone, but Android will never get there with so many captains trying to steer the ship.
In my opinion, Google needs to “huddle” with its various OEM partners and figure out some kind of standardization for Android. The result would only be a more stable, reliable consumer product. True, openness drives innovation, and until now an anything goes philosphy has probably been Android’s most valuable asset. But there comes a point where too much novelty only creates a confusing, dissatisfying experience for the end user.
Already there’s not that big of a difference in the form factors on Android Superphones. Sure, screen-sizes range from 4 to 4.5-inches, and some might have three or four physical buttons, but are these minimal points of differentiation really worth the splintering of the entire platform? I don’t think so.
In the end, fragmentation will not kill Android, but neither will Android ever kill the iPhone if doesn’t start laying down at least a few guidelines for OEMs.