Late last night, Mark Spoonauer of Laptop Magazine penned an editorial about Google. It’s a smart opinion piece with the stance that Google is showing favoritism for their own platform and specificially for the most current versions of Android. There’s some merit to the arguments about Android fragmentation — a point made here nearly a year ago — but as much as I respect Mark and his opinion, the justifications presented aren’t telling the whole story. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about Apple (s aapl), Google (s goog), Microsoft (s msft) or another smartphone platform maker, there are a number of players in the cellular game that impact decisions ranging from operating system to user interface to apps. Here’s the baseline situation as Mark describes it:
“Right now, T-Mobile sells four Android phones. Guess how many run Android 2.0 or higher? Zilch. The only 2.0 device you can use on T-Mobile’s network that offers all of the above goodies is sold directly through Google, the Nexus One. Sprint doesn’t sell a single Android phone running 1.6 or higher, although it promises to upgrade its devices. And the only AT&T Android phone, the Motorola Backflip, runs 1.5. Verizon Wireless has one phone that runs 1.6, the Motorola Devour, so you can download the beta of Google Maps Navigation, but not Buzz for mobile or Gesture Search. The Droid runs 2.0, and will be upgraded to 2.1 soon.”
The facts are the facts and Mark is absolutely correct in describing the situation. But only calling Google out specifically just doesn’t make sense in this context. Let’s look at why that is.
Mark rightly points out that the coolest new Android apps are appearing on handsets with newer builds of Android first — and sometimes exclusively. Google Maps Navigation debuted on the Motorola Droid with Android 2.0 and Google Buzz is supported on 2.x as well. But I ask myself: if I were Google and I wanted to rock out a new app and build the biggest buzz, I’d get it on the heartiest hardware first so it really shines from a performance perspective. I’d also pair it with hardware designed to show it off — the Droid car dock morphs what’s essentially a software product into a look-alike, standalone GPS device. That simple dock, designed specifically for the Droid, takes the Google software solution and transforms the experience. Don’t think so? Imagine if Google debuted the software on the original G1. The impact would be muted without a dock and on less capable hardware. Instead, Google chose the right hardware combination to show it off and the stock value of some GPS makers dropped 20%. And only a month after the Navigation software debuted, Google ported it down to older devices running Android 1.6. The Buzz application certainly fits as an example, but I think it’s easy to dismiss for two reasons — one, Buzz isn’t yet a “must-use” service and two, it’s available in a limited fashion on older Android devices via the web.
Who’s really to blame?
That brings up the Android 1.5 and 1.6 issues, though. Mark raises solid points about the customer confusion between the four main versions of Android currently available. The brand-new Motorola Devour (s mot) (see our hands-on review here) is landing on Verizon Wireless (s vz) with Android 1.6, so there’s no native Google Buzz support and no Google Gesture Search, either. Those are great examples and again, Mark is spot-on with the facts. But who chose to put Android 1.6 on this new Android device? It certainly wasn’t Google. If you have to “blame” someone, choose either Motorola who made the phone or Verizon who decided to sell the phone. All Google does for this phone is provide versions of it’s mobile platform to the phone maker. If I had to pick on someone in this specific case, it would be Motorola — the Devour runs Motorola’s custom interface called MotoBlur and Motorola doesn’t offer that UI on anything higher than Android 1.6. There’s your likely culprit in this case, which has nothing to do with Google’s perceived favoritism for current Android versions.
Haven’t we been here before?
I can’t help but think back to very similar situations in the Windows Mobile space — another fragmented mess. Windows Mobile 5 devices arrived with a fresh new look and later Microsoft added features and tweaks with Windows Mobile 6. The same brouhaha arose with some handsets getting the upgrade and others were bypassed. Even those that were upgradable had to wait for months and months — I had nearly a half-year wait for my Dash, for example. Was it Microsoft’s fault back then? Perhaps in some ways, but think about where we got those upgrades from if our devices qualified — from either the handset manufacturers or from the carriers directly. Just like Google today, Microsoft simply developed the platform and it was up to others to take action — or not, as the case may be. Sure it was easy to blame Microsoft if you had a Windows Mobile 5 device and some new apps weren’t supported your phone. But “easy to blame” doesn’t mean the blame was cast correctly. It wasn’t then and it’s not now.
Pace of change and lowest common denominators
So back to the latest and greatest software features hitting Android 2.0 or 2.1. Let’s apply the “Google is punishing consumers” reasoning to a another situation. Should we all blast Microsoft for not going back to add Aero features in Windows XP? Of course not, that would be silly. First of all, there are driver and hardware issues to contend with and secondly, XP support is getting dropped in favor of Vista and Windows 7, i.e.: newer versions of the company’s product. Granted, this example is super-extreme, but there’s a bigger point to be made here — technology is evolving at an increasingly fast rate. What was hot five years ago — or even five months ago — is old news. New platforms and features are constantly being added to our mobile devices and the maturity cycles are speeding up. What’s a company to do?
From a business perspective, they have to keep customers on old versions happy when possible, but that doesn’t help sales to new customers. Innovation is focused on the future far more than the past, so Google’s efforts to develop new apps for the latest and greatest Android version isn’t a reason for persecution. And developing new Android apps for the lowest common denominator limits innovation because developers can’t take advantage of new APIs or other functions — in a case like this, the pace of Android maturity would greatly slow, and that’s not a recipe for success in a fast-past market.
There’s another factor here as well, and it actually justifies the choice of Android 1.5 or 1.6 on a handset from a carrier’s perspective. Carriers offer wide ranges of phones in order to appeal to the widest possible audience. Assume a customer walks into a Verizon store with the intent of purchasing an Android handset. If a $199 Motorola Droid running Android 2.x is considered too expensive for that customer, should Verizon lose the sale because they have nothing else to offer? Of course, not — they’ll steer that customer to a device in the $99 or $149 range. And if that customer still wants an Android phone, they can lessen the functionality and the price to make that happen. The Devour is a perfect example of this — slightly less performance under the hood, but a solid Android 1.6 experience for less money. How is that customer being punished? Without a lower model phone running an older version of Android, how will the customer get what they want at a price they can afford?
Yes, there is an issue, but…
There is a fragmentation issue with Android — in that respect, I’m in total agreement with Mark. I’ve even asked your opinions on if Google should “de-frag” Android and attempt to get most, or all, phones on the same version. But ultimately, it’s not up to Google and their open-source platform. It’s up to the carriers and the handset makers unless Google draws a line in the sand and exerts near-total control. If that’s what you really want, you can already get that from a company in Cupertino.
Related research on GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):
Mobile OSs Are No Longer Just About Mobile