Fragmentation of Android Open platform and Google’s efforts to bring a method to madness in its OS updates and its pitfalls.
Open platforms are increasingly coming of age and the future from the looks of it is completely Open Platform led (read report). LiMo powered Google Android is the best example of trend setting into the mainstream. With every major account that Google Android takes over, the proprietary WinMo loses. The Android camp can today boast of HTC, Motorola and Samsung in its ranks. Each of those names is Android’s gain and WInMo’s loss. Earlier, Gartner had predicted a 7X increase in smart-phone numbers driven by Android in the next 4 years, even as the smart-phone market would grow 4X. WInMo in the same time would at best remain flat. (Read report here)
The best thing about open platforms such as Android is that they seem to make the devices platform agnostic. An Android powered HTC and the Moto Droid would thus be on the same interaction levels. Thus interface commonality of applications and content would make the user experience uniform.
However by adopting standard platforms, manufacturers risk losing the ability to differentiate themselves. This is something akin to the WinMo 6.1 screen that is ubiquitous across all Windows devices. The handset manufacturers had no choice with WinMo, but with Google Android they have a choice of differentiating their Interfaces and re-designing them. The fact that Android gave the ODM the choice of customizing the platform was one of the USPs of Android. However, this then causes the open platform to fragment as ODMs dig deep into parts of the operating system. So then Google Android starts branching out like the Moto Blur or the HTC Sense.
An example to this effect is the multi touch “Pinch” zooming:
- The Motorola Droid’s Android 2.0 OS supports multi-touch out of the box, but Google and Motorola haven’t turned it on for any of the phone’s built-in apps. So the Droid’s Web browser, Google Maps, and built-in photo app do not support pinch zooming. Third party applications can also support Multi touch.
- Meanwhile, the HTC droid Eris, which runs an older, customized version of Android, also supports multi-touch — but only for a few apps made by HTC. The Droid Eris’s Web browser and built-in photo app do support pinch zooming. But Google Maps does not
That’s just one feature compared across 2 manufacturers. The complexity could be a groundswell across multiple ODMs and a number of features. The inconsistencies among phones will continue to grow. And it wont just be confusing to consumers, but could be a roadblock to developers writing apps for Android. That is something Google can’t afford.
So then it will be important for ODMs to maintain application compatibility even as they create distinct ways to organize user’s information and services.
On the other hand, it could also mean Google having to step in with the ODMs in the UI customization stage such that device differentiation is created and platform sanctity is also maintained.
Google seems to have stepped into device UI customization process already as was the case with Motorola Droid. Google’s Android team directly assisted Motorola and Verizon in building the Droid’s software from the ground up and is currently assisting another, unknown, handset maker in Korea to create a finely-tuned hardware and software combination. (Read Report). Currently Google releases major updates on a chosen flagship model.
- 1.0 went to the HTC G1
- 1.5 went to the HTC Hero
- 2.0 went to Motorola
While this suits Google’s scheme of things, this discrimination can hurt Android eco-system in the long run. Google will have to balance two things:
- Coordinating UI update releases to ensure appropriate standardization for open source innovation
- Being fair to the ODM eco-system in terms of roll outs of the UI versions.