By Barry Levine / Data Storage Today. Updated April 07, 2011.
One of Android's biggest advantages is that it is open, while one of its biggest disadvantages is -- it's open. Google is stepping up its effort to address the risk of fragmentation, while countering concern that it is beginning to exert too much control.
On Wednesday, Google Vice President of Engineering Andy Rubin posted on the company's Android Developers blog about this issue. "We don't believe in a 'one size fits all' solution," he wrote, adding that the platform has "spurred the development of hundreds of different devices -- many of which were not originally contemplated when the platform was first created."
'Basic Compatibility Requirements'
He added that "there are not, and never have been, any efforts to standardize the platform on any single chipset architecture."
Recently, some industry observers have questioned whether market fragmentation is taking place, and others have suggested that Google was beginning to exert more control in order to avoid fragmentation. A recent study from Robert W. Baird & Co., for instance, contended that 55 percent of Android developers find compatibility to be a problem.
Last month, Google said it was holding back its tablet-optimized Android 3.0 Honeycomb platform from smaller phone manufacturers because the OS had to be further refined to be released as open format. But it was being released to larger companies, such as Motorola and HTC, which led to complaints about Google's control and preferential treatment.
Rubin's blog post attempts to define the company's position. "This temporary delay," he said, "does not represent a change in strategy." While device makers are free to modify Android to customize any range of features for their devices, he said, the company does require conformity to "basic compatibility requirements" in a device that is marketed as Android-compatible or includes Google applications.
Frustration for Google and Licensees
"After all," he wrote, "it would not be realistic to expect Google applications -- or any applications for that matter -- to operate flawlessly across incompatible devices."
Rubin referenced a posting last May by the company's open-source program manager Dan Morrill, on the same blog. In it, Morrill said "fragmentation" means too many different things, including optional APIs that cause inconsistent platform implementation, or different user interface skins.
Morrill said Google's definition of Android compatibility is that the device can "properly run apps written with the Android SDK." Compatibility, he said, can be affected by bugs, missing hardware components, or non-standard APIs. He added that, since manufacturers are motivated to have Android Market apps run on their devices, they are "generally pretty motivated to ship compatible devices."
Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for consumer technology at NPD Group, said platform control is a continuum, and Google is trying to manage both ends. He described Apple's tight platform control as one end, while completely open-source platforms are the other. Google, he said, "wants to compete with Apple" and other tightly controlled platforms, and has been "frustrated" when licensees, for instance, ship with an older Android.
But, he noted, licensees can also be frustrated when Google works more closely on the development and release of Android devices with some companies than with others.