Fixing Fragmentation: Google’s Key to the Enterprise Tablet Space

The enterprise tablet market is quickly becoming a crowded place, with a host of manufacturers and operating system providers looking to tap business users. With Honeycomb, an updated version of Android built specifically for tablets, Google wants to become a major player in the space too. Its problem? Fragmentation.
As handset manufacturers and carriers tweak Android to put their own stamp on it, the platform grows increasingly fragmented. This has yet to affect most consumers (as evidenced by Android’s expanding share of the U.S. smartphone OS market). Developers, on the other hand, have definitely taken notice. According to new research from Robert W. Baird & Co, a whopping 86 percent of Android developers said fragmentation is at least something of a problem; 55 percent believe it’s a “meaningful” or “huge” problem. That’s because it’s becoming more and more difficult for them to address the entire base of Android handsets with a single build. And while fragmentation is merely annoying when you’re using a smartphone’s virtual slingshot to kill pigs with fowl in Angry Birds, it is simply unacceptable when it comes to business apps and the enterprise market — two areas Google would do well to not ignore.
Deloitte predicts businesses will buy 10 million tablets this year, accounting for 25 percent of all sales of that particular device. Meanwhile, Gartner forecasts corporate sales will be a driving force as worldwide tablet sales reach $29.6 billion this year, more than tripling last year’s numbers. That’s a market that Apple currently owns with its iPad, of course, thanks to its head start and its impressive library of applications customized for tablets. Such apps, which fully leverage the capabilities of tablet devices, will be crucial for those looking to compete with Apple in the enterprise. Meanwhile, enterprise platform options for developers are expanding to include RIM’s upcoming PlayBook and Hewlett Packard’s TouchPad, which will launch this summer. So to lure developers of business-targeted offerings on tablets, Google will need to demonstrate that applications can run effectively across all those Android tablets that are coming to market.
Google is well aware of and serious about solving the ever-increasing fragmentation problems plaguing Android, warning that it will withhold early access to Android upgrades for partners who fail to get Mountain View’s approval for tweaks to the software. That follows March’s introduction of a new tool, “Fragment,” designed to help developers address issues, such as screen size, with older versions of the operating system. Those moves will need to succeed if Android is finally going to make a serious run at the enterprise market. I’m not convinced that will be the case, however. “Fragment” is likely to prove valuable, but too many carriers and hardware manufacturers don’t make it a priority to deliver updates to handsets in the field. (For good information about which players take those upgrades seriously, check this post from ReadWrite Mobile.)  And most mainstream consumers are simply unaware of the problem and don’t demand those updates.
What’s more, Google must be careful to avoid infuriating the partners that are the underpinning of the business — and who could simply bolt for, say, Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 if they find Android’s ecosystem too controlling. Google wisely plans to merge Honeycomb and Gingerbread (the previous version of Android) to provide a single platform for the growing variety of Android devices. It will also help if Google slows its rollout of Android upgrades to allow the market to keep pace through the natural attrition of older devices. All those steps will help, but Google must make them without losing the partners and developers who are critical to the Android ecosystem. And that’s the only way Android will become a force in the mobile enterprise.

Question of the week

What else can Google do to fix Android’s fragmentation problems?