Has Google Solved Its Android Fragmentation Problem?

Google continues to gobble up large chunks of smartphone market share, but offering four different versions of the same operating system will eventually stunt that growth by derailing customer purchase plans. After all, why buy a new device with an earlier version of Android — say, version 1.6 — if the better hardware and software is devoted to version 2.1?

Such fragmentation is running rampant on the platform, which has only been shipping products since October 2008, leaving the owners of older handsets pining for apps that their friends with newer phones can run, or wishing for advanced native functions like multitouch capability. Developers, meanwhile, are challenged by having to build different Android apps for different versions. Luckily, Google appears to have a strategic plan to address these problems, Engadget reports today.

Thanks to conversations at last week’s CTIA, as well as some follow-up information, the site says it has “reason to believe that the company will start by decoupling many of Android’s standard applications and components from the platform’s core and making them downloadable and updatable through the Market.” In other words, only the base Android functionality would be in the hands of carriers and handset makers, while third-party developers — and Google itself — would expand Android functionality through downloadable software.

The expectation is that this effort will take place over the next two Android updates, codenamed Froyo and Gingerbread respectively. By managing the fragmentation in-house and divesting core apps from base Android functionality, Google regains control: It can move key applications to its Android Market, and reduce the carrier influence over what apps can or can’t be on the phone. The approach fits nicely with the Google Nexus One strategy Colin Gibbs outlined at GigaOM Pro (subscription required) as Google attempts to wrest control from the cellular network providers.

Back in February, I noticed subtle signs of a shift to address the Android fragmentation issue, and rumors at the time were indicating that Google could try to migrate all existing handsets to Android 2.1. That’s a tough road to hoe because here in the U.S., carriers decide what software is pushed to handsets on their network. A notable exception to that practice is Google’s own Nexus One which accepts software updates directly from Google — cutting the carrier out of such a role. Still, the first whisperings of a solution were heard, so I kept my eyes open.

Three weeks later, my watching paid off — I noticed that Google’s software strategy had shifted over time. Instead of the latest and greatest native apps making their way to Android 2.1 only, functions were filtering into older versions of Android not long after release. Google’s new Gesture Search, for example, appeared on Android 1.6 devices only two weeks after debuting on Android 2.x phones.

From a consumer standpoint, separating core handset functionality from applications can reduce buyers’ remorse as Android matures. That doesn’t mean that every Android application in the future will run on the handset you just bought, but the functional base between various Android devices should be much more similar. And if Google can get a more standardized version of Android across its handsets, developers won’t be as challenged to port code between various SDKs and feature sets. Happy developers ought to make for happy customers and help continue Google’s path towards mobile dominance in the smartphone market.