AS ANDROID SWEEPS across the smartphone market like a wave of locusts over a land that is strewn with Windows Mobile devices cast by the wayside, Google's idealistic open source, embrace all attitude is starting to look naive.
At the heart of Android is the ability to hack the system to make it do what you want, something Apple and Microsoft are fervently against. While Microsoft is doing a good job of looking like a desperate forty-something suffering a midlife crisis, trying to flog Windows Mobile to any vendor that ships a smartphone, for Google it's a matter of simply keeping Android an integrated ecosystem, something which it has, so far, been unable to do.
As the number of handsets running Android grows rapidly the fragmentation in both software and hardware configurations might have dire consequences. Only Google's Nexus One runs the latest version of the Android OS and the majority of devices have low resolution screens. The result is that users are getting a heterogeneous experience between Android devices, and that's something Apple has managed to avoid through its proprietary hardware design and software development policies.
So when it was reported that all mobile phones running the Android system would be upgraded to version 2.1 regardless of their previous version, it sounded like great news for all concerned. That is until you realise that the software represents the tip of a very large iceberg.
The great news came after some hush-hush, wink-wink, know what I mean? conversations with US carriers. The site had no information about similar platform wide upgrades in other countries. Not only was this information in stark contrast of Microsoft's decision to stick its middle finger up to Windows Mobile 6.5 users but even this move might do little to bring uniformity to the Android platform.
Should this mass update occur, it will level the playing field, in a way, for application developers. It will mean that they will be able to stop appending their apps' description with statements such as 'for 2.x only', which will help Android's appeal to the less tech savvy. It should also allow more people to enjoy the full fat Android experience, something that has been lacking in all but a few of the handsets.
For mobile application developers who had to cope with fragmentation in the past thanks to the dismal performance of J2ME the current state of affairs with Android platform is far easier to live with. Kyu Lee, President of Gamevil USA, whose company develops a number of popular titles for both Iphone and Android devices said that if fragmentation continues, it would "make the platform [Android] less attractive".
Apple's answer to this trifling problem comes in the shape of locking down both hardware and software. However according to Lee, Jobs' draconian measures have been "doing a great job" in helping them design and develop software. This could be the ultimate slap in the face for Google, a company that prides itself on helping its burgeoning developer base with both virtual and physical resources.
The problem for Google is similar to that of camera manufacturers before it. Buying a smartphone is more about buying into the application ecosystem than the device itself. As users who purchase applications cannot resell them or port them to other platforms, applications become the ultimate tie-in to future Android or Iphone device purchases, just as lenses are for cameras. In the same way that fast food companies try to wean kids onto their products from an early age, it is vital for Google to get customers before they become indoctrinated into Apple's system.
With their respective app stores set as the battleground, it is the number of apps, not their quality, that is being used as propaganda. Apple, clearly not oblivious to the fact that the Iphone's internals are a good generation or two behind similarly priced smartphones, coined the infamous "There's an app for that" ad campaign to highlight the 140,000+ apps on its store. This notion of quantity over quality is perhaps a new experience for Apple users who have historically paid more to get less.
With consumers subscribing to the 'less is more' philosophy, it is vital for Google to fix the problems facing developers and make Android the more attractive platform. One would think it shouldn't be too hard for Google to cash in on Iphone developer apathy after Apple's strongarm tactics when it comes to app approval, content and even their descriptions. For now at least, for developers like Lee and his team, it's quite simple, they spend more time developing for the Iphone "since the market is bigger."
For developers it isn't just OS issues on the Android platform that give them headaches. Lee highlights the differing screen resolutions on Android devices as being the biggest problem of the lot. The difference in hardware specifications between devices is so vast that it's easy to see why developers have difficulty designing their applications for Android.
HTC's Tattoo highlights both hardware and software problems faced by developers. Not only does the popular device have a cut down version of Android 2.0 but a 2.8-inch, 240x340 screen. Compare this to the 3.7-inch, 480x800 display on the Nexus One and then you start to see the fundamental design decisions developers have to make. Lee says that they do tweak releases for each Android OS release but as fragmentation grows they will have to "go for the lowest common denominator", which that may void the 'quality over quantity' mantra that Android users are dearly clinging onto.
While Google prefers to stay more than an arms length away from deciding which hardware Android runs on, the power brokers in Mountain View will have a small spring in their step if the carriers present a united front. The problem for Google is, aside from bidding against a number of then in various licence auctions in the past, there just isn't much of the spend now, think later approach that carriers want to do now. Rather, they want to recoup their massive outlays on parts of the radio spectrum.
With handset specifications soon surpassing the needs of most applications, the stick dangling the subsidised handset carrot is becoming shorter and shorter. Once the handset gravy train is gone you'll start to see carriers come up with desperate attempts to hold onto custom such as O2's recent slashing of sim-only Iphone tariffs. For carriers the ability to guarantee income for a fixed period of time is something that keeps the final figures on their balance sheets black.
The deployment of updates might represent a rather large problem as a number of devices support over the air updates, meaning a considerable strain on cells, which in some areas are already oversubscribed. With the recent 2.1 update for the Nexus One weighing in at over 15MB it wouldn't be surprising to see major version updates in the 100MB range. Pushing that sort of update to thousands of users, even over a period of time, would represent a significant undertaking for the networks, especially if they want to maintain a high quality of service to their subscribers.
So what about us, back in Blighty? Android supporter T-Mobile told us that it is "working with all handset manufacturers" on its books to get 2.1 on all devices that can support it. Unwilling to give a timeline, the spokeswoman told us that handsets that support over the air updates, such as the G1 and G2, will not require a PC to update them, while others will have to download their updates from T-Mobile's website and install via USB cable.
According to T-Mobile, it is the handset manufacturer's job to produce and package the update, and it's up to the carrier to "to implement it". So even though manufacturers like HTC might have tweaked Android to work with one of their devices, you're at the whim of T-Mobile and other carriers as to when you'll get your hands on it. Judging by the recent past, updates have been released by phone manufacturers after months of delays, which have only caused further confusion and frustrated existing users.
This hotchpotch update process could end up sealing Android's fate. Core features dependant on region, carrier and device are simply not good enough for consumers who spend a significant sum of money on a handset. For developers the uncertainty creates design decisions ultimately impacting the user, producing a disjoint experiences among Andoid devices.
Looking across the battle line, Apple's single update source and deployment method might not posses sthe same technological prowess as over the air updating, but by leaving carriers out in the cold, updates are easy to install and available everywhere at the same time in the same place.
It's a sad state of affairs when at present the best way to make sure you are on the ball when it comes to updates is to get a Google sponsored device such as the Nexus One. You could take your chances with a contract-free phone but neither solution is particularly conducive to the affordable open panacea that Google originally envisioned.
Perhaps it is ironic then that Google's open support for both hardware and software might be its Achilles heel as it goes deeper into battle with Apple. For Android developers some sense of stability is needed in order give them enough time to produce applications that showcase the platform's capabilities.
At present Android is like a college party, you invite your friends but the majority of people who arrive are simply there for the booze on offer. The problem for Google is that without someone at the door the open invite could lead to Apple winning by highlighting the advantages of a closed ecosystem once again. µ
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