How do you create an open platform that can be used by dozens of hardware vendors and hundreds of software developers without some fragmentation? You don't. Yet to hear all the complaints about Android fragmentation, you would think that Google must either lock down its OS like Apple does with its iOS or try to run it as a Linux-like free-software collective. The former certainly works for Apple, but it doesn't really play to Google's strengths. The latter is pure folly. Instead, Google is trying to walk a middle road here, and, whatever the pitfalls, it seems to be doing a pretty good job so far. Android has 33 percent of the U.S. smartphone market share; not bad for a fragmented OS.
Android fragmentation has been an issue since the platform launched, but it became newsworthy again this week because of a report from Robert W. Baird & Co. In a survey of 250 Android developers, 55 percent of Android developers found OS fragmentation to be a meaningful or huge problem. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say I can't code a lick. And yet, from a developer's perspective, I can certainly understand the issue. Multiple screen resolutions, hardware configurations, and OS versions must be a pain. At the very least, they present a challenge.
About the same time, reports started drifting out about how Google would be cracking down on fragmentation and taking a tighter grip on its OS. Bloomberg published an article provocatively titled "Do Not Anger the Alpha Android," which announced that Google had sent new marching orders to its ecosystem partners, summarized thus:
There will be no more willy-nilly tweaks to the software. No more partnerships formed outside of Google's purview. From now on, companies hoping to receive early access to Google's most up-to-date software will need approval of their plans. And they will seek that approval from Andy Rubin, the head of Google's Android group.
Of course, none of the "dozens" of sources for this story allowed their names to be used. After all, the consequences for crossing Google seem pretty dire already. Talking to the press could get your app booted from the Android Market, right? Because the platform is so locked down and tightly controlled?
The closed/fragmented confusion got bad enough that the aforementioned Andy Rubin felt the need to clear the air. In a post on the Android developer blog, he tried to allay fragmentation fears and assure partners that Android will remain open. As should be clear by now, there is a tension between these two messages, but not necessarily a contradiction. As Rubin put it:
As always, device makers are free to modify Android to customize any range of features for Android devices. This enables device makers to support the unique and differentiating functionality of their products. If someone wishes to market a device as Android-compatible or include Google applications on the device, we do require the device to conform with some basic compatibility requirements.
The reasonableness of this statement depends on the specific modifications, the nature of the additional functionality, and, of course, the fine print of those basic compatibility requirements. All of these things can and will be debated. Software developers say the platform is too fragmented, hardware vendors say Google is wielding too much control, but what gets overlooked is the interest of the consumer. What has "fragmentation" meant for them? They have been enjoying a plethora of hardware devices, an amazing number of application options, and a platform that, whatever its "compatibility requirements," is the most open mobile OS on the market.
Rubin titled his post "I'm thinking of having Gene Amdahl moment." Amdahl is credited with coining the phrase "fear, uncertainly and doubt" to describe how IBM salespeople would play on customer fears to get them to avoid his products. "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM" and all that. Certainly, many of the attacks on Android for being messy and fragmented come from competitors with axes to grind. This tactic was perhaps most effectively deployed by Steve Jobs: "Folks who want porn can buy an Android phone." But Google's isn't above this sort of thing itself. Just count how many times it refers to iOS as "closed" at Google I/O next month.
Anyway, all of this FUD about fragmentation may be solved when Honeycomb is finally released. Honeycomb will come with tools designed to address fragmentation that will broaden compatibility. Apps written for Android dating back to v1.6 will be supported. It will also run on both tablets and smartphones; getting it to run right on the latter is allegedly what is taking so long.
Whatever the benefits of Honeycomb, the bottom line is that Android is neither completely open nor totally closed. There is no getting around the fact that Android is Google's platform. Every other vendor and carrier is at best second tier, and most of this posturing is by vendors worried about falling into the third or fourth tier.
That might be bad for them, but it isn't really an issue for consumers to worry about. For them the Android ecosystem should be free from fear, uncertainty or doubt.