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How Google could fix its Android fragmentation woes

AndroidThere’s no doubt that Google is kicking butt and taking names with its Android smartphones. A recent report by the market research firm NPD shows that Android phones outsold Apple’s iPhone for the first time in the first quarter of this year. That effectively makes Android the second-best selling mobile platform in the U.S. — right behind RIM’s Blackberry devices, which have been entrenched in the smartphone market for years.

Android’s increased popularity, and eventual domination of the U.S. smartphone market, is inevitable. As I’ve written previously, its success will be driven by its sheer ubiquity. Android phones are already available on all major cellular carriers in the U.S., and they all carry a variety of devices that range from entry-level to high-end.

But that same ubiquity is also Google’s greatest issue with Android right now. There are simply too many versions of the operating system out there and that’s become a major headache both for developers and users. What follows are a few suggestions on how Google could help fix its platform fragmentation problem before it becomes an even bigger issue.

Focus on two versions of Android

DroidAccording to Google’s most recent OS distribution chart, there are currently three versions of Android that have significant amounts of users — Android 1.5, 1.6, and 2.1. Both 1.5 and 1.6 are on older and slower Android devices, whereas 2.1 was the most recent version that shipped with the Nexus One.

Ideally, Google should have an older version of the OS around for slower hardware, and a newer version for more capable devices. Trying to unify all Android devices across a single version of the OS is likely more trouble than it’s worth — it would be even more confusing for developers and users to have the same OS across multiple phones, all of which would inexplicably support different features because of the varied hardware. For a platform that covers multiple devices like Android, Google is better off having separate version numbers with clearly defined capabilities.

Having two versions of the OS to deal with would be a boon to developers as well. They would have a much better idea of how their apps perform across multiple Android devices, and it could possibly prevent strange restrictions like making the official Twitter app only work on Android 2.1.

Moving Android 1.5 devices to 1.6 is the easiest way to accomplish this, but as we’ll discuss below, that’s not as easy as it sounds.

Convince carriers and manufacturers that it’s worth upgrading phones sooner, rather than later

Nexus OneThe cellular carriers and phone manufacturers control what version Android devices run, and the carriers control when they receive updates. Google needs to actively promote to both groups why it’s worth updating their Android phones, otherwise they may never see a reason to update lesser Android 1.5 hardware. Many carriers and manufacturers have also gotten into the habit of announcing updates to appease users, but fail to specify when they will actually get the updates. Further prodding by Google would help with this as well.

One good example of an update rollout comes from how Verizon handled the Motorola Droid upgrade to 2.1. While the update was delayed by nearly a month, Verizon rolled it out methodically to all Droid users over several days, and by all accounts the process went smoothly. The Droid update practically erased the presence of Android 2.0 (it’s previous operating system) from the Android ecosystem, which helped to defragment the platform to the three versions we have today.

Google also needs to make sure that new phones aren’t coming with older versions of Android when they’re released. Motorola’s recent release of the Backflip was a huge stumble because it was released with Android 1.5. Motorola says that it will offer an update to Android 2.1 eventually, but there’s no excuse for not shipping the device with the new OS.

Keep releasing new features across multiple Android versions

GigaOm’s Kevin Tofel points out an interesting way Google has been already fighting the fragmentation issue: By releasing new features across multiple versions of Android. For example, the Google Navigation application was first seen on Android 2.0 with the Motorola Droid, shortly after that it was made available for Android 1.6 devices.

There are limitations with this method since the older version of the OS may not be able to support certain features that the newer version does. With the Google Navigation app, Android 1.6 users aren’t able to use the voice command function. It also makes sense for Google to keep certain features exclusive to the new version of the OS — at least for a short while. It will help brand new hardware seem all the more enticing (like the Droid did initially when it was the only Android device with Google Navigation), and it will also be a way to tempt users with older Android devices to upgrade.

Wrapping up

Android is still a very young platform, but it’s maturing quickly. I’m certain Google is already thinking hard about its fragmentation issues, especially since influential bloggers like Michael Arrington have been warning of it since late 2009. It’s made great progress since then, but it’s evident that Google still has a lot to figure out when it comes to the more complex issues facing Android.

Google will likely still end up dominating the smartphone market even if it never fixes the fragmentation issue, but it will definitely have a more content developer and user base by doing so.

About the author:
Devindra Hardawar is a tech/film blogger and podcast host. You can find him writing at VentureBeat and Slashfilm, and podcasting at Slashfilm and the Symbiotek Podcast.