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Android is Fragmented Except When It’s Not

There is a story this week that Google is trying to, at long last, crack down on a very serious problem with the open source Android OS platform, and that’s fragmentation. Up till now, handset makers, and even those building would-be iPad killers, felt free to tear out parts of the OS and add their own custom themes, and other elements. As a result, Google faced the highly embarrassing prospect, in the Samsung Fascinate, of witnessing Microsoft’s Bing search engine replace their own.

Since Google offers Android free of charge, and that means no licensing fees, they have to depend on search and other features that deliver targeted ads to earn a profit from this venture.

Reports about efforts to tighten up the Android OS indicate that VP of engineering Andy Rubin, one of the creators of Android — who actually began his carrier as a software engineer at Apple years ago — will have the final say on any alterations to the OS.

This change of tune is understandable. Unfettered, your Android phone may be very different from mine; that is, if I actually had an Android phone of course. The OS theme might be altered, default apps swapped out, and proprietary components added. Certainly customers who hoped for something that was predictable, without unexpected interface traps, would feel cheated. As far as app developers were concerned, all those Android “fixes” meant serious complications in making software compatible with as many smartphones and tablets as possible.

And please don’t get me started about the fact that you can’t even depend on getting a critical software update for your Android device. That’s up to the carrier or manufacturer, and they might have other priorities, such as selling you a new model rather than supporting the old one.

When Steve Jobs complained about the fragmentation in the land of Android, Rubin, in an infamous Tweet, used several command line instructions to illustrate the open and accessible nature of the OS. That, to him, is a good thing, or was, until things changed.

This reported crackdown is only the latest attempt by Google to take control of their OS before it twists and turns in the wind in totally unexpected ways. Just recently, Google announced that they had delayed availability of the source code for Android 3.0. code-named Honeycomb, which made its debut on the Motorola Xoom. This position is understandable, in light of the fact that Samsung and other tech companies opted to build tablets a while back with the smartphone version of Android, regardless of the consequences in performance, and forcing customers (the few that bothered) to cope with an interface designed to work on a smaller gadget. It all seemed a desperate move to have something, anything, to sell, even if the customer was poorly served.

Now Rubin and his bosses at Google have the perfect right to dictate terms for gaining access to their OS, just as they have the right to hold off releasing the source code. At the same time, it’s hard to argue in favor of the openness of the Android platform when Google is now taking it in a different direction.

Certainly, I can understand Google’s dilemma. When it comes to the iPad and iPad 2, customers are still lining up to buy them. Despite reports that Apple is improving the lead times and getting product to market, demand still appears to be exceeding supply. This leaves the rest of the market in a tizzy. There are reports that Motorola, after spending a bundle on those awful Xoom ads, plans to replace it with a new model by June. That’s after just a few months on sale, and clear evidence things aren’t going well. Then again, after the retirement of the legendary StarTAC cell phone, which sort of mimicked the famous Star Trek Communicator, Motorola has not been able to create a worthy successor. I’ll grant the RAZR phone was thin and elegant, but it was otherwise a pedestrian handset.

When it comes to smartphones, sure Android has done very well, reportedly holding a higher market share in the U.S. than Apple’s iOS. But that was before the iPhone arrived at the front doors of Verizon Wireless. It’s a sure thing Verizon is pushing the iPhone at the expense of Android product right now. On the long haul, the departure of T-Mobile as a separate company means there will be lots more potential iPhone customers. There will also be fewer choices, and Android will probably suffer worst.

As for Google, no doubt Andy Rubin and his bosses realized that there would be utter chaos if they didn’t assert greater control over the Android platform. If they are going to offer Android as a brand with a singular identity, they can’t allow every single manufacturer and carrier to dictate the final look and feel of their gadgets. Just saying a smartphone comes “with Google” doesn’t actually deliver a strong image to the customer. I mean, people know when they have an iPhone with the iOS. When it comes to Android, other than power users who are up on all that minutiae, how many regular users understand — or even care — what the Android OS is all about? I don’t think the percentages would be very high. Google has to be worried.