Froyo fragmenting Android? Deal with it

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Mike DanoThough much of the smartphone buzz last week centered on the unveiling of Google's Android 2.2 software, dubbed Froyo, the action also served to reignite worries over a most-dreaded word in wireless: fragmentation.

Indeed, the issue is important enough for Google to devote one of a handful of its Android sessions to the topic during its I/O conference last week. "Casting a wide net: how to target all Android devices" sought to address developer concerns on how to design applications that can be accessed by phones with 3-inch screens running Android 1.5 all the way up to 4-inch-screen phones powered by Android 2.1 and beyond. A conference attendee questioned the session presenter specifically on fragmentation, and the presenter responded that Android is supposed to run on multiple devices--that's one of the platform's major strengths--and Google offers developers the tools to adjust their applications accordingly.

Fragmentation came up again during a subsequent press conference at I/O headed by Google's chief Android architect, Andy Rubin.

"Some in the press have called this fragmentation. That's probably a bad word for this. It's really legacy," he said, noting that previous iterations of Android have helped blaze the trail for where the platform stands today.

Interestingly, in response to a different question, Rubin marveled at the wide range of devices that now sport Android innards, from TVs to tablets to refrigerators. Now that's fragmentation.

Google is toeing a difficult line: It's attempting to drum up developer support for Android by constantly adding lots of neato features, while at the same time assuring developers that their applications will be accessible by millions of app-hungry Android phone owners.

To be clear, by most measurements this gamble has paid off in spades. According to a recent report from NPD Group, Google's Android mobile operating system now represents 28 percent of smartphone unit sales in the U.S.--behind only Research In Motion's (NASDAQ:RIMM) BlackBerry (36 percent) and moving past Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone (21 percent).

But Google's seemingly insatiable quest to continually add new whiz-bang upgrades to the platform appears to have tripped up at least some Android licensees. In a surprisingly candid post to the company's blog, Sony Ericsson's Sumit Malhotra sought to explain why it would take the handset manufacturer close to six months to upgrade its Android phones, which feature Sony Ericsson's UXP user interface overlay, to version 2.1 of the Android platform--a platform that Google made obsolete just last week.

"With UXP Sony Ericsson gives consumers additional value in comparison to generic Android handsets," Malhotra wrote. "I do appreciate that the timing for the upgrade above might not meet some of your expectations."

Other vendors, of course, are jumping wholeheartedly onto the Android 2.2 bandwagon, including Motorola (NASDAQ:MOT) and HTC. (Perhaps not surprisingly, it looks like Google's Nexus One will be the first to get the Froyo upgrade.)

As Altimeter Group's Michael Gartenberg astutely notes, "By constantly raising the bar, both in terms of reference devices and software, Google aims to keep innovating and drive that innovation as a differentiator."

But what does all this activity actually mean for real application developers? Reactions from companies exhibiting at Google I/O last week spanned the gamut: some appeared totally unconcerned about fragmentation, while others admitted it was an issue they would have to simply deal with.

Maria Chavez Cantu of Internet radio provider Pandora said the company hasn't really had a problem addressing the different versions and handsets of Android. But Qik's Hrag Chanchanian acknowledged device fragmentation is an issue, though he said the company is capable of dealing with it.

DataViz's Ilya Eliashevsky, who works on the company's popular DocumentsToGo app, said the firm has had to deal with close to 100 different Android phone models accessing its documents-reading application. He said the company is working to ensure its application works best on the most popular of those devices, such as the Motorola Droid.

Perhaps the most interesting response I got on the topic came from Scvngr chief Seth Priebatsch, who explained that the company's app is designed to work on each of the major iterations of Android, from version 1.5 to version 2.1. However, he said that Android doesn't pose nearly as many problems as BlackBerry. He said Research In Motion's ubiquitous smartphones are difficult to develop for since each device--from the Pearl to the Bold--features such unique specifications that it's almost like writing a specific version of Scvngr for each BlackBerry model RIM sells.

Nonetheless, Priebatsch promised that Scvngr will "make it happen" and get onto BlackBerry, despite the challenges.

Not surprisingly, Apple's iPhone repeatedly came up during conversations among developers. Most agreed that the platform continues to represent a major opportunity, though it appears it's no longer the only game in town. Of those developers I spoke with, none said iPhone development took precedence over other platforms. Instead, they generally said application development is now done in parallel among all the top platforms, from iPhone to Android to BlackBerry.

But what about concerns over fragmentation in Android? Based on my conversations at Google I/O, it's a concern, yes, but it's nothing unique. In fact, Harry McCracken of Technologizer calls fragmentation a "defining characteristic" of Android. And most major mobile developers must now target Android, iPhone, BlackBerry and possibly other platforms like Windows Mobile and Symbian. Further, it's worth noting that fragmentation looms even on Apple's iPhone: The latest version of the company's platform--4.0--will not be fully implemented across all iPhones. For example, first generation iPhones will not be able to support multitasking.

Fragmentation is simply the name of the game--it is now, and it will be for the foreseeable future. And really, fragmentation is just part of life. There are a variety of versions of Microsoft's Windows operating system for desktop computers. And have you ever tried to use an American charger in Europe? --Mike