Do Androids Dream of Fragmented Sheep?


The Google-backed Android phone platform has a huge problem with fragmentation, or the number of different releases and adaptations of Android for different phone platforms over its history. Or this is no problem at all. It depends on who you ask. Ken Segall, a former branding chief at Apple–branding as in marketing, not burning flesh, although with Apple, it may be necessary to clarify the difference–wanted to help his 13-year-old son buy an Android phone. The results are illuminating.

Segall took his son to an AT&T Wireless store, looked at two phones of interest that ran Android 2.1, and tried his darnedest to get a straight answer about whether either model was upgradable to 2.2. The 2.2 release includes tethering (phone as modem) and mobile hotspot (phone as Wi-Fi/cell router) options, among a number of other well-received improvements.

(Tethering and mobile hotspot service are disabled on most 2.2 handsets sold, such as those from Verizon Wireless, even though most carriers often such services on other phones with add-on pricing; T-Mobile is a notable exception. It's an "open" platform, though, so you should be able to just go into settings and turn these features on? Yeah, right. And if you hack the phone to remove the locks that disable the feature, you may find on some models that the phone reverts the firmware.)

It's also useful to know whether there's a continuous upgrade path for a phone you spend hundreds of dollars on, and for which you are locked into a two-year contract with a penalty for early cancellation. While Apple has never made specific upgrade promises about its phones, the company seems to have a two-year cycle for iOS upgrade support: the 2007 iPhone and iPod touch came with 1.0 and can run 3.2, but not the latest 4.x releases; the 2008 iPhone and iPod touch can run 4.2, but can't take advantage of every new feature because of process limitations. No carrier worldwide has seemingly been able to prevent upgrades, either.

Answer came there none from the AT&T store employees. Or, rather, a lot of disarming honesty about not having an answer. The reps at the store did not know whether a 2.2 upgrade was possible, and, after one diligently researched the matter, there was still no answer nor a guarantee.

Steve Jobs, maker of the proprietary, locked-down iOS, made bellicose noises during an analyst's call a few weeks ago about the hundreds of finely and coarsely different versions of Androids running on phones. And it's true that you can purchase new phones today that use Android 1.5, 1.6, 1.7, 2.0, 2.1, and 2.2 versions, only some of which can be upgraded to any newer release than the one with which each phone shipped. Each of those versions has been customized by carriers, too. Google's own Nexus One is out of production, so there's no baseline phone that should be über-Android-ish to compare against.

The counter argument against the trope of fragmentation is that there's a robustness in the marketplace that provides room for many phones with different capabilities, and that there's nothing particularly wrong with a phone running 1.x if it's marketed as something less expensive and less full featured than one with 2.x. You can pick any iPhone, so long as it's black, while you have hundreds of choices for Android phones. The associated argument was, now somewhat corrupted, that as an open platform, end-users could choose to customize phones they purchased, including installed unsupported OS upgrades. It's absolutely not a straightforward option, even though many models of phones have been rooted, the rough equivalent of iPhone jailbreaking.

Google is not mediating the problem of underperformance and overchoice. It ceded specific control over the form and manner in which Android is implemented on phones, although it reportedly can wield a heavy hammer over manufacturers in withholding its proprietary services that are layered on top of Android, and which are not part of the open-source happy dancing bears approach. That includes the Android Marketplace, Google apps and data, and Android certification.

Microsoft has opted for a third course. It won't make its own phones, but it has set specific minimum hardware requirements for Windows Phone 7 devices to make sure that every phone released is a premium model, and, seemingly, there's an easy path to upgrades by having enough power under the hood to accept them. (Microsoft has been a bit waffly on how upgrades will be provided. When asked whether carriers could prevent upgrades, Microsoft said it will make them available to all phone owners, but it's unclear how phone owners would gain access to such upgrades if carriers don't roll them out–some manual download and install process unsupported by carriers could be involved.)

In the end, Segall's son just wanted a phone that he knew was futureproofed against the past: Android 2.2 has been shipping for weeks, and a modern phone purchased at retail from a carrier doesn't have the release installed and he can get no guarantee it will. That's not fragmentation or diversity. It's just plain confusion.

Photo by Tsahi Levent-Levi, used via Creative Commons.