Android Phone Makers Push the Edge in Drive to Differentiate

Android (s GOOG) handset makers HTC and Motorola (s MMI) are extending their user interface skins in new directions to help differentiate their hardware. But in some cases, the extension could exacerbate Android’s already sticky problem of fragmentation. UI skins show how competitive it is for Android hardware makers, and how they’re looking to any edge to help their products stand out from the crowd.
On Thursday, HTC unveiled the OpenSense SDK, a tool that will allow developers to write applications on top of its Sense UI. The new SDK is part of a larger rollout of HTCdev, a program aimed at supporting developers by providing tools and resources. Developers will now be able to write applications for Sense 3.0 and will be able to access APIs and sample code for 3-D displays and HTC’s tablet pen. But Sense 3.0 is already raising the specter of more fragmentation, because it won’t work on all older HTC Android devices.
The OpenSense SDK could be good for developers looking to build their own apps on top of HTC’s impressive Android hardware. And it shows that HTC is working even harder to enlist the help of developers to aid its cause. But it means there could be a growing library of apps that are only available on specific Android phones. Despite Android’s claims of openness, that could mean a closed set of software unavailable to other Android users. And it could also add more update woes for users. Already, many phones are slow to get new Android updates, as manufacturers have to try hard to make the new software work with their UI skins. A new set of apps on top of Sense could further complicate the update process. Google has finally owned up to the fragmentation issue, launching an industry coalition to help solve the issue. But it is still a concern that is not going away.
Motorola, meanwhile, also has new plans for its own proprietary interface, called Motoblur. CEO Sanjay Jha said on Thursday that he envisions Motoblur becoming more intelligent about how apps are affecting the performance of the phone. He said Motoblur could warn users about how much power certain apps are consuming, allowing them to shut them off to conserve battery life. He said it’s a response to the fact that bad application performance is behind 70 percent of the returns of Motorola Android devices, something he blames on the open Android Market, which lets any app in.
A Motoblur that monitors the battery impact of apps would be a useful feature for many users, and it shows again that manufacturers are trying to get creative in how they differentiate their devices. Motorola made a big bet on Android, and unlike HTC, it doesn’t have another platform like Windows Phone 7 (s MSFT) to lean on. It needs to rise to the top in the Android scrum, which is becoming increasingly hard, thanks to competitors like Samsung, which owns the component food chain. This drive to differentiate is keenly felt by manufacturers. Nokia (s NOK) had considered jumping on the Android bandwagon, but it decided against doing so because it couldn’t get Google to give it special considerations that would allow it to add its own twists to the operating system. Even with Nokia’s huge manufacturing operation, it still felt it needed an inside edge from Google; otherwise it would be “just another company distributing Android,” Nokia CEO Stephen Elop said in a BusinessWeek story.
That’s the reality for current Android makers. They need to keep finding ways to make their hardware stand out, even if it means fragmenting an already fragmented platform. The platform as a whole is still soaring in sales, but the really interesting battle is continuing to unfold between device manufacturers.