Monday, August 30, 2010

Android: Fragmentation? Or choice?

I've seen some articles and blog posts around advancing the view Android is "fragmented" and the telcos are ruining it by putting their own user interfaces on their phones. I suppose might look that way to some, particularly those used to the Apple iPhone paradigm: One phone. It's black.

I thought it might be fun to see how one might "spin" the reality of many versions of Android on a wide variety of phones from several different phone makers, as well as the issue of telcos offering their own user interfaces with their phones. I'll try to keep it brief.

First, "Fragmentation". What is fragmented? Yes, there are phones selling today with one of Android v1.5, 1.6, 2.1 and 2.2 loaded. Each new Android release has offered new functionality and features. There are good reasons to want to own a phone with the latest release. But that comes at a price. You need to buy a phone with enough memory and a fast enough processor to run Android v2.1 or v2.2.

What if you just want to make a cheap phone and push the smart phone boundary well down into the "feature phone" range? Then you have to load up Android v1.5 or v1.6 as they cope very well on slower phones with less RAM. Like the LG GT540 Optimus for NZ$399? It's an incredible phone for that price..and runs Android v1.6.

I own an Eken M001 tablet with 128MB of RAM and a processor that *barely* does 300MHz. It runs Android v1.6. It can't really run anything later. It's just too low-spec. It also has no GPS, no camera and no accelerometer. I bought it to see just how BAD it could be. Blow me's not bad at all. It's actually quite good. It happily runs virtually every Android app there is that doesn't need those things. Any limitations aren't in the OS, they are in the device itself and what the hardware can't do. But I got it for NZ$120 (US$80-ish) and for all intents and purposes I have a touchscreen netbook for that paltry sum. What a bargain.

So is that "fragmentation"? Or is it Android demonstrating it can offer a powerful functional platform at many price points on diverse hardware? Buy the one you want. You can't really go too far wrong as almost all the apps will run on any of them. Where some see "fragmentation" my blurry eyes have so far only been able to discern choice...and lots of it.

Can Google stop this? Why would they want to? Android is infesting every nook and cranny of the handheld device paradigm. It's Open Source. Anyone can take the source for ANY released Android version and deploy it on whatever device they care to port it to. Remember, the apps will run on anything - separate from the underlying hardware. That's been a computing Holy Grail for decades. Why would anyone want to stop that now that we've finally - almost - arrived?

Secondly, the telco user interfaces. Yeah...I find that annoying. But it only becomes unbearably annoying if it prevents me from downloading and installing one of the dozen or so Home apps available in the Market...thus replacing whatever the telco put on with something I like better. Open Home, aHome, GDE, DxTop, Panda Home, Home++, ADW.Launcher, Launcher Pro, Helix Luancher....and so on. I've run them all at one time or another. Whatever the telcos put on, I don't care as long as I can download one of these - or some other - and have whatever UI I want on my phone. I've owned an HTC Magic, an Acer Liquid and a Nexus One. I could make any of them look like whatever I wanted it to look like. That's one of the cool things about Android. If you want your phone to look and act like every other phone, then get an iPhone. There's only one model and it only comes in black. Would you buy a car that way? Or do you want 2-door or 4-door? 1.3L or a honking great V8? Hard top or convertible? that car 'fragemntation" that confuses the poor old car buyers? Maybe all they wanted was the Model black. :-)

So I don't really understand the UI confusion thing if one ofthe best aspects of Android is allowing the user to replace the UI almost completely with one of many apps created to do exactly that.  Where others apparently see eyes see choice and flexibility and more power for me, the phone owner.

The bottom line is the same apps run on almost all the phones - with the exceptions being more a function of the hardware in the device itself (phone versus tablet vs netbook) and the progression of capability that occurs from the lower end of the market toward the top end.

I can't really see Google being unhappy with an eco-system that lets anyone run Android on anything...and virtually all the apps work if the device itself can support it.

I've so far only been talking about stock, un-rooted phones. It's worth bearing in mind that almost every Android-bearing phone released so far has been rooted and each phone owner can gain system-wide access to their phone if they wish to go that route. Many of the more popular phones have very active communities of independent (and competent) developers creating their own versions of Android from the publicly available source code for the system itself. So if you *really* don't like what the telco did to your phone (but you bought it anyway), you don't have leave it that way. You have choices.

Android 3.0? Bring it on! I'm sure I'll find something to run it on.

1 comment:

  1. My wife has the LG GW540 phone, which we got from Dick Smith for $380, and she loves it.

    And for work I'm testing out the HTC Wildfire ($500nz), which has Android 2.1, multi-touch cap screen, 5Mpixel camera etc. And that is also really nice, and I think at a good price too.

    As for tables, the Archos units that have just been announced, esp the 1001 for $299 US, sounds like it will also be a big winner.