pyehouse
8Sep/110

Android Cut By The Splinters

So it seems Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, accidentally gave notice that Android 4.0, the next release of the search giant's mobile OS, will be released in the October/November timeframe. Of course, that may change but regardless it appears to be coming soon. Whether it comes soon or not, without major uptake by a lot of handset vendors and service providers, it's simply going to add to the growing pileup of currently deployed Android revisions, increasing the fragmentation even more.

Android 4.0, code named Ice Cream Sandwich, is intended to, among other things, refine the APIs with an effort to reduce fragmentation. Android 2.0 (Eclair) was released in October 2009, 2.2 (Froyo) was released in May 2010, while 2.3 (Gingerbread) came out in December 2010. 3.0, aka Honeycomb, was a tablet only version first released in February 2011. 2.2 (Froyo) is currently deployed on roughly 50% of Android devices with 2.3 (Gingerbread) installed on another 30% or so. Honeycomb, the tablet version, is only deployed to about 1.5% of Android devices, a fact which leads to its own conclusions, but that's for another time. The fact is, the APIs were originally supposed to be forward compatible. Something written to target an older revision of the OS should work on newer revisions, until a major release comes along which might break API compatibility. The API, therefore, is intended to provide shelter to developers hoping to deploy against the largest possible number of devices. The problem, though, isn't developer application support for various OS's. The problem is the hardware.

The handsets are targeted at a given revision of the OS and a lot of time and money is put into making sure the handset works as intended with that version of the OS. Even between minor releases, as evidenced by the already existing fragmentation, it has been difficult to get the various parties involved to consider revisiting existing handsets, some of which might not even be marketed any longer and therefore unlikely to provide further revenue through additional sales, in order to incorporate a new Android revision.

Android 4.0 is supposed to address this, allowing one OS to target both handsets as well as tablets. That's great, but realistically is not going to reduce fragmentation very quickly. To begin with, Android tablet sales have been something just shy of anemic but even then it is doubtful that without some potent new features unlocked with 4.0 any Android tablet manufacturer will want to revise the OS on tablets currently in the sales channel, much less those no longer being sold. As for handset developers, they're in a worse boat since many deployed devices are much older than any tablet currently out there. And it's not like current handsets will suddenly drop dead of electronic heart attacks now that 4.0 is available. They will continue to perform as they always have. So Android 4.0 is really only expected to solve fragmentation moving forward.

And yet, even with the release of 4.0 imminent, major manufacturers who must have had access to beta versions of Ice Cream Sandwich, have still elected to roll their own with forked older versions of Android (vis-a-vis the upcoming Kindle). Sure, eventually Android 4.0 will become the mainstream version rolled out on new devices. But by then Google might have already been working on Android 5.0, aka Monster Truck Rally (who knows?). Meanwhile, the Android ecosystem will be falling to pieces.