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Is Android going too fast too soon?

Posted: 20 Apr 2010 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Android? smart phone? OS fragmentation?

One of the potential winners in the booming smart phone market is Google's Android platform, which shipped on more than 6 million handsets in 2009 and is forecast to ship on over 20 million in 2010. However, the rapid pace of Android's growth also threatens to fragment the platform, according to a new study from IMS Research.

Platform fragmentation occurs when applications written for one version of an OS are not compatible with another version of the same OS. In the case of Android, the rapid evolution from 1.5 to 2.1 has resulted in four different versions of the OS shipping across devices. "Fragmentation is a concern first and foremost for developers," noted IMS Research analyst, Chris Schreck. "Differentiating between strains of an OS, modifying code for each strain, and ensuring that a user obtains the appropriate version of a program, aren't practical possibilities for many mobile developers. Developer resources are notoriously limited, and adding incompatible strains within platforms to the already crowded smart phone OS space makes their uphill climb even steeper."

Schreck continued, "In the case of Android developers, you already have a much smaller installed base of devices than exist for some of the other smart phone platforms. When you further segment that group into different OS strains, the actual potential market for your application starts to look pretty small. Without Google addressing this issue, Android developers are going to find themselves working harder to reach fewer people."

The problem of fragmentation extends beyond its impact on mobile application developers, though. Handset vendors and mobile network operators (MNOs) also suffer. The cost of maintaining an investment in an OS goes up with each variation of the platform one needs to support. For MNOs and handset vendors, this means extra resources required to translate user interfaces, custom applications, and other software IP to new generations of product. All of those extra resources impact the new handset's time to market and total cost of production.

For its part, Google is rumored to be working on addressing the issue. As Android matures, it is expected that the pace of major platform updates will slow. Additionally, there is speculation that Google will decouple software updates for devices from MNOs, allowing users to upgrade their devices directly from the Android Marketplace. It remains to be seen how these speculated changes would serve to rein in Android's fragmentation, but another issue that appears to have been overlooked by all is the software license under which Android is distributed. The Apache software license, which Android uses, does not require licensees to contribute modifications of the Android platform back to Google. While this license characteristic serves to encourage licensees to innovate on the platform (without fear of having to share IP), it also allows licensees to alter the platform in isolation, a recipe for fragmentation.

Schreck concluded, "I expect Android to see considerable market share gains in the immediate and near future. However, to keep up that pace of growth, particularly in the high end market, Google absolutely has to manage fragmentation. Otherwise, other OS like Symbian or the LiMo Platform, both of which take a harder line on platform fragmentation in the software license, will stand to gain as open source alternatives."

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