Gartner Inc. recently
released a report predicting that Android would be the No. 2 cellphone platform by the end of this year. But with a growing number of Android flavors across a variety of cellphones and providers, will fragmentation begin to spoil that success and confuse consumers? The answer depends on whom you ask.
One observer, Adrian Kingsley-Hughes writing for ZDNet in June, thought the problem was very real. For Kingsley-Hughes it was about too many versions in too short a time and the fact that several of these versions are still in wide use.
Meanwhile, analyst Michael Gartenberg writing on Engadget Entelligence is concerned with a different angle. As an open-source platform, handset makers can and do customize Android any way they like. According to Gartenberg, they are taking advantage by adding unnecessary applications, while shutting down access to useful features -- like removing Google (Nasdaq: GOOG)'s free WiFi hotspot functionality and replacing it with the carrier's own paid service. In his view (and mine), this is watering down the platform.
When you look at these arguments, it's easy to imagine that, perhaps at some point, these multiple levels of fragmentation could catch up with Android and begin to have an impact on that rosy Gartner forecast.
But Joe “Zonker” Brockmeier, who has been writing about open-source for many years, believes the fragmentation argument is a red herring. "It's a big deal to a lot of hyper-technical folks, but I'm guessing that 70 percent of the mobile market doesn't know or care to know the difference between a Froyo and a Donut, and isn't going to notice or care that their phone isn't getting new features.”
Brockmeier admits Google could do a better job of managing the different versions of Android, but he’s still not convinced it’s a huge problem.
Still, the situation plays into the classic "Apple versus Android" argument. Sure, not every generation of Apple's iOS device will be able to take advantage of the latest and greatest features, but everyone buying a new iOS device will know what to expect.
People buying an Android device, in contrast, may hear about a feature such as free WiFi hotspot functionality, only to find their phone doesn’t have it, and that could lead to consumer anger and frustration and eventually a backlash. While competitor Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL)’s iOS is not an open system, Apple proponents can argue that iOS will always work the same way, regardless of what device it’s on.
Ultimately, for the average consumer, whether Android is open-source or a closed system like Apple’s iOS probably doesn’t matter much. People just want a phone that works as advertised.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of open-source tools, and Android has the potential to offer all the advantages of an open platform, but it also gives the handset and cellphone providers the power to customize and add endlessly to their phones.
This is a double-edged sword that could drive innovation -- or water down the platform with a confusing array of choices that renders the Android label meaningless. The direction this takes in the future will determine just how accurate that Gartner forecast might be.
— Ron Miller is a freelance technology journalist, blogger, FierceContentManagement editor, and contributing editor at EContent magazine.