The headlines are all over today that Google is cracking down on fragmentation with Android. You will see quotes like, “The party is over.” According to Bloomberg Businessweek, Google is forcing Android licensees to abide by “no-fragmentation clauses” that give Google the final say on how manufacturers tweak the Android code. Examples of this would be skins like HTC’s Sense, Motorola’s Blur, and Samsung’s Touchwiz. Andy Rubin said that these clauses were always a part of the Android license, but people are finding that maybe Google is enforcing it a little more.
All of this talk started when Google announced that they will not release the source code for Honeycomb (Android 3.0) which was built for tablets. Andy Rubin, head of Google’s Android group, clearly stated that they do not want hardware vendors to adapt it to run on other form factors where it might not function properly. He admitted that Google cut corners in order to get Honeycomb to market as fast as possible. The XOOM was released at the end of February and it still has a useless SD card slot. I doubt this is an issue with the hardware, but more likely the Honeycomb software. Most of the other Honeycomb tablets that are coming to market will be in June. This proves that there are obvious issues with Honeycomb and until things are rectified don’t expect to see the source code. Does this mean Google is closing the door because they are concerned with the reliability of software?
One week later and the reports are that Google will have to approve every modification. It appears Facebook might be stirring up the pot because they are unhappy that Google is going to review their form of tweaks for their smartphone. It is interesting that Facebook is not talking much. Android has always been open and has allowed manufacturers to make their own tweaks to it, but who knows if Facebook was making too many major changes. Whether you like Sense or Blur, the principles of the Android UI are roughly the same. What if Facebook went a little too far in that you could not even tell if it were the Android operating system? Should Google be considered “closed” if they stop such a thing?
The theory is that Google is doing all of this to stop fragmentation. This “F” word has been brought up from day 1 as a huge problem for Android, but for some reason, 60 million phones were sold in 2010. The critics say fragmentation is an issue because there are different versions of Android running on different phones which is caused by different skins. The only people who care about fragmentation are the hardcore fans and they represent a small percentage of the market. Mainstream consumers could care less if they are on Android 2.1 or 2.2, let alone running Sense or Blur. These are the same consumers who are willing to sign a contract for 2 years so why should they care? The majority of Samsung owners are happy with their version of Android and could care less what else is out there. On the other hand, hardcores, like myself, do care. Fortunately for hardcores it works out because they have more knowledge of what’s out there to decide what phone or tablet to purchase. Because I am a hardcore, I did not get caught buying a Samsung phone because I do care about what version of Android my phone has, but again, I am in the minority. The bottom line is that mainstream consumers just don’t have the time to care about Sense, Blur, or whatever version of Android they are running.
Lets take it to TV’s where there are tons of fragmentation. There are plasmas, LCD’s, and LED’s. The mainstreamer looks for a decent deal and when they get home all they see is a nice HD picture. It does not matter to them that their neighbor might have a little better picture. They just see their TV and it looks wonderful. Was fragmentation a problem with Windows? Over the years when newer versions of Windows came out, most people stuck with the older version until they bought a new computer. Of course consumers had the choice to buy the upgrade, but half the time their hardware didn’t meet the specs for it to run right. There are plenty of people out there still using XP and are fine with it.
One of the biggest critics of Android’s fragmentation is Steve Jobs, but Apple’s way of doing business actually proves that fragmentation is not an issue. We all know Apple is a closed world. With it you get 1 phone (or tablet) each year and 1 app store. If you are into Apple, you have the choice of whatever Steve Jobs and Apple gives you. The typical Apple user could care less about all of the other options and choices out there. They just think they have the best (or magical) phone known to man and that is it. Apple was still able to sell millions of phones even though you could not even change the background wallpaper on it. I would argue that most IPhone users never heard of Android. You have to give credit to Apple for seeing this and coming out with a good product with a nice looking UI. They went right after the mainstream market and it is a great business model, but it doesn’t mean that fragmentation equals failure.
The question is will Google now stop all these skins like Sense and Blur and close the door? The answer is most likely not. Trust me when I tell you that Google is open and will continue to be open. The problem with the word “open” is people take it too literally. Google cannot be that kind of “open.” No matter what, there is always a higher God to answer to. If there weren’t, things would be a complete mess. You can be open and still have standards. An example of closed is Apple where you have 1 choice and 1 place to buy apps. With Google’s Android you have different choices and that to me is open.