Android device makers may be getting frustrated with being locked into making uniform, generic devices with no competitive differentiation from each other and getting their rear ends handed to them by Apple in the process.
The problem has been around for a while. More than a year ago, Bloomberg first reported that Google was coming down hard on licensees who it felt were fragmenting the operating system.
These “non-fragmentation clauses” give Google the final say over the platform tweaks from OEMs, which had them up in arms. Google has also dragged its feet, splintering the versions of Android all over the place, but update schedules vary from one vendor to the next. As a result some devices are on version 2.2, others 2.3, some 3.0, and others 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). Meanwhile, most every Apple product on the market has the latest iOS 5.1.1.
That fragmentation cuts across a lot of devices. A recent report by OpenSignalMaps indicates there are 3,997 distinct Android devices. Meanwhile, Ice Cream Sandwich, the latest version of Android released last year, is only installed on less then 10% of Android devices.
For vendors, Google’s rules about how Android can be implemented on their hardware in order to be blessed with the “compatible” label has resulted in a lot of lookalike tablets and smartphones.
The one Android success story on the market, the Kindle Fire, features a heavily-modified version of Android that’s primarily used as an outlet to buy Amazon products. As a result, the only apps for the Fire come from Amazon and not the Google Marketplace.
Ted Morgan, CEO of Skyhook Wireless, said he is hearing discontent from more than a few OEMs (the companies that build devices) on this issue. Skyhook provides geolocation services for OEMs, so he’s talking to players across the ecosystem.
“This is a real trend and it includes more than one major player. It really is only logical when you think about how critical it is to own the ecosystem of your platform in order to be able to compete,” said Morgan.
He went on to say he doesn’t think the major players will fork Android too much (as Amazon did) because they want as many apps as possible to work on their devices.
“I also think it will be interesting to see how Google reacts in order to keep the manufacturers on board their version of Android. In fact we have already heard stories of them offering to pay manufacturers large sums of upfront money to stick with their services,” he said.
It should be noted that Morgan hasn’t exactly been friends with Google. He’s sued the company twice, once alleging that Google used its relationship with mobile manufacturers “as a club” to sabotage Skyhook’s relationships with vendors, and another alleging that Google is infringing on several of its patents.
Also, the rules of the game changed with Android revisions, which undoubtedly left OEMs grumbling. Google never open sourced Android 3.0 and OEMs were barred from modifying it. So the only option they had was to use Android 2.3 if they wanted to customize the OS.
With version 4.0, Google returned the open source license and since then, there have been some high profile Android 4.0 launches, including the Samsung Galaxy S III.
Laptop vendors have been complaining about the same problem with Microsoft for more than a decade, notes Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies. “It was inevitable with Android that same problem would come up. That particular frustration from hardware guys has been there from the beginning,” he said.
There’s been no give on Google’s part in this issue, “and I doubt you will see any give. The way they operate is everybody gets the same thing,” said Bajarin.
Still, this might end up helping Microsoft with its tablet strategy if it shows a little more flexibility with Windows RT than Google. Microsoft will probably be just as strict as Google, Bajarin notes, but x86 tablets will have the lure of backwards compatibility with existing apps. “That could be a big draw, especially in the enterprise,” he said.
Vendors need to take a wait and hold attitude on advancing their Android versions and see what happens with the Windows versions. “I don’t know if you will have mass abandonment because of so much software on Android. I know the frustrations there. I just don’t know if we are at the breaking points yet,” said Bajarin.