One of Google Inc.'s Biggest Problems Could Be About to Get Much Worse

"Android is like Europe," Apple  (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) CEO Tim Cook told The Wall Street Journal back in February. He continued:

Europe was a name that somebody came up with for Americans who didn't understand that Europe was a lot of countries that weren't like U.S. states. They were very different. Android is many things.

Indeed. Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG  ) mobile operating system is known for its fragmentation, powering hundreds of different handsets with dozens of different screen resolutions. Google updates the Android operating system annually, but new versions take years to catch on -- as of February, one out of every five Android devices still ran Gingerbread, a three-year-old version of the operating system.

That fragmentation helps to explain why, despite dominating in market share, Apple's iOS receives preferential developer treatment (Dave Feldman, writing for TechCrunch, recently explained that his start-up abandoned Android because of its fragmentation.)

That fragmentation is about to increase significantly. As Apple and Google push into wearable technology, the gap between the relative unification of their mobile ecosystems appears destined to intensify.

Some of Google's hardware partners aren't backing Android Wear
In time, it seems wearable computing devices will encompass a great variety of gadgets, from smart earbuds to digital glasses, but for the time being, the wrist seems to have emerged as the first great battleground.

Two of Google's largest hardware partners -- Samsung and Sony -- have already entered the market. So far, Sony has released two smartwatches, while Samsung has released three and a fitness tracker hybrid. Sony's watches run a slightly customized version of Android, as does Samsung's original Galaxy Gear. But the Gear's successors -- the Gear 2 and the Gear 2 Neo -- run Tizen, Samsung's own operating system, and the Gear Fit is completely proprietary.

To put it another way, none of these devices is powered by Android Wear, Google's official smartwatch solution. To be fair, there was no way they could've been -- these devices were conceived long before Google launched Android Wear -- but with their own smartwatch platforms now established, both companies look set to continue emphasizing their alternative solutions.

Sony, in response to Android Wear, said that will remain focused on its own smartwatch platform. Samsung is said to be on board with Android Wear, but is far more incentivized to support the Tizen-powered Gear. Since Gear owners are unable to use their watches with non-Samsung-made smartphones, they are more or less forced to purchase Samsung's handsets.

Apple's iWatch could reinforce its biggest advantage
Apple hasn't unveiled its smartwatch, but when it does, it seems certain to be a heavily integrated product. Recent reports suggest that Apple will ship the iWatch in two different sizes and may even offer a luxury version with a $1,000+ price tag. But if recent rumors are any indication, they will all run the same modified version of iOS -- an operating system Apple has been unwilling to license.

When it comes to mobile software development, that could reinforce Apple's advantage: Developers looking to extend their mobile apps to the wrist wouldn't need to worry about a broad set of devices running a wildly different set of operating systems. Android development, in contrast, could get even more hectic -- some Android handset owners could be sporting Google's official Android Wear solutions, others might have a Tizen-powered device, and still others might be using Sony's smartwatch or something else entirely.

That fragmentation has its advantages -- a wide variety of choices being the most obvious. But with Google's Android still lagging iOS in terms of developer support, the coming smartwatch revolution has the potential to extend Apple's lead even further.

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  • Report this Comment On April 16, 2014, at 2:23 PM, zippero wrote:

    Android fragmentation hurts Android not only in wearables but also in the Heartbleed bug still affecting millions upon millions of Android users worldwide who can't get a bug fix due to slow updates. Due to fragmentation and slow updates, Android attracts 99% of all malware, basically proscribing Android adoption by the enterprise. A 64-bit Android is a no-go as well because it would just introduce more fragmentation on a bigger scale. Samsung's Galaxy S5 is still 32-bit and slower than the iPhone 5S on all the major CPU benchmarks, according to Anandtech.

  • Report this Comment On April 16, 2014, at 2:36 PM, twolf2919 wrote:

    Your point (about further fragmentation in Android land vs. iOS), but this "fragmentation" really is only an issue if apps are allowed to run on these wearables. Android watches seem to have gone down this path, but nobody yet knows whether Apple is! What if Apple decides (as it seems to have done with its car solution) to make these wearables mere "extensions" to the phone - something that can be accessed FROM THE APPS ON THE PHONE!

    If Apple goes that route - and I think it is a better solution! - then it does not matter at all what OS Apple's wearables run. As long as apps on the phone can interact with them.

    Think about it - why install a big, bulky OS on a wearable? Why run apps there - which then requires big, power hungry CPUs to support. That, in turn, requires more storage and more battery power - neither of which is available in abundance on a tiny wrist-based device.

    So here's MY prediction: Apple's iWatch will NOT run any apps (beyond the built-in ones) - but it will provide an addressable display, addressable microphone & speakers to apps residing on an iPhone, iPad, or Mac. It will provide smartphone-based apps with sensor information from the device (e.g. heart rate, motion info, body temperature, etc.)

  • Report this Comment On April 16, 2014, at 4:14 PM, SwampBull wrote:

    "That fragmentation helps to explain why, despite dominating in market share, Apple's iOS receives preferential developer treatment (Dave Feldman, writing for TechCrunch, recently explained that his start-up abandoned Android because of its fragmentation.)"

    There is a sentence structure issue here: 'Despite dominating in market share' in the above sentence modifies "Apple's iOS", not the implied "Android", since there is no noun or pronoun used. It is clear what you mean if the reader already knows what you are talking about, but it still would read better as:

    Despite its dominant market share, Android's fragmentation helps to explain why Apple iOS receives preferential developer treatment.

    -Your friendly neighborhood Grammar Police

  • Report this Comment On April 16, 2014, at 4:16 PM, SwampBull wrote:

    Actually now fragmentation is the subject so it still reads like a train wreck. I tried.

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Sam Mattera

Sam has a love of all things finance. He writes about tech stocks and consumer goods.

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