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The Android Dilemma – Fragmentation

by Kirk Knoernschild  |  April 3, 2012  |  8 Comments

The best thing that Google can do for the Android ecosystem is develop a world-class piece of hardware that runs the Android operating system. Unfortunately, the worst thing that Google can do for the Android ecosystem is develop a world-class piece of hardware that runs the Android operating system. Yeah, that puts Google in a tough spot!

Google’s recent purchase of Motorola Mobility is certainly a patent play, but it also gives Google the luxury of building an Android device should they choose. They’ve already announced they’ll be delivering a Google branded tablet, though they’re partnering with Asus, not using the Xoom. Perhaps this is just the first step. Next up? A Google branded smartphone where they “partner” with Motorola Mobility. All just pure speculation at this point, but still interesting to ponder.

Given the existing fragmentation of the Android ecosystem, this may not be a bad idea. It’s one thing when developers start complaining of fragmentation. It’s yet another when consumers start complaining because apps don’t work. In the end, fragmentation is killing the Android platform and Google has to address this issue ASAP.

With Google developing their own devices, they’ll have complete control over the experience (ala Apple), but it’s sure to drive away device manufacturers who have built atop Android. Hey, maybe webOS isn’t dead. After all, it’s a great mobile operating system that’s now open source. More on that another day.

If Google chooses not to build their own smartphone, they have to take at least two important steps. First, they have to gain control over updates to the Android operating system. Leaving updates in the hands of network operators and device manufacturers is the cause for this fragmentation. Second, they have to ensure that device hardware profiles created today possess the ability to run future versions of Android for at least two years (ie. the length of a typical network contract). Preferably longer.

If Google doesn’t take one of these two steps (i.e., their own device OR gaining more control) fragmentation on the Android platform will persist. And once users start suffering, that’s not a good thing for Android. In the meantime, if you’re shopping for an Android device, buyer beware. You can still purchase a device running Android 2.1 (aka. Eclair), which first hit the market in 2010 and is over two years old. If you happen to purchase one of these devices, don’t expect an upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich (v. 4.0). And if you’re developing for the Android platform..well…good luck with that too. You’d best understand market share and try limiting your options.

Category: mobile  

Kirk Knoernschild
Research Director
4 years at Gartner
19 years IT industry

Kirk Knoernschild is a research director covering many aspects of application platform strategies, including development platforms, programming languages and frameworks, mobile application platforms, and the software development life cycle (SDLC). Read Full Bio


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