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According to special-interest blog Android and Me, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) is about to unify the Android experience. I'm not so sure that it's a good idea, even if it's true.
Let me set the stage: Google's Android platform for mobile phones is a serious rival to leading smartphone solutions like the Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) iPhone OS and Palm (Nasdaq: PALM ) WebOS mobile software platforms. Android is open, extensible, and powerful, and lets programmers do some nifty tricks with your phone. So far, so good.
But with the iPhone or Palm Pre, you always know what you're gonna get. One software version fits all available hardware revisions of those phones, and the user is guaranteed pretty much the same experience on any two iPhones. And that's where the Android differs. Earlier Android phones shipped with version 1.5 of the platform; we’ve since seen an upgrade to version 1.6. The Motorola (NYSE: MOT ) Droid is the only model available that runs Android 2.0, and newer handsets like Google's own Nexus One ship with Android 2.1 installed.
On top of that disparity in platform versions, Google's partners like to make their own modifications to the user experience. Select Motorola phones have a user interface called MOTOBLUR, HTC has Sense, there's the Samsung TouchWiz and the Sony Ericsson User Experience Platform (nee "Rachael"), and on and on. With so many software versions and custom interfaces, the poor end-user will never know what the next Android will look and feel like. Android and Me's inside sources claim that every handset on the market today will get upgraded to the 2.1 version eventually, with Sprint Nextel (NYSE: S ) and Deutsche Telekom's (NYSE: DT ) T-Mobile customers reportedly seeing the upgrade first.
Viva la revolution and all that, but the versioning game really doesn't matter a whole lot. Google explicitly doesn't want a unified experience and encourages its many partners to play around with the Android platform. Alternative interfaces like Sense and Rachael often get reviews superior to those for the stock Android experience, whether they're running atop Android 1.5 (like Verizon's (NYSE: VZ ) Droid Eris) or 2.1 (like the upcoming HTC-branded version of the Nexus One). Each new Android version brings a few bug fixes and a handful of new features, but the truly mind-bending upgrades are few and far between.
The end result is that Google shepherds a large flock of diverse cell phone experiences, while Apple and Palm are sticking with their much smaller herds of uniformly shaped and groomed animals. It's a fundamentally different strategy in keeping with Google's spaghetti-on-the-wall mentality. Every Android is not for everyone, but with so much diversity, there's probably an Android model somewhere that fits your needs.
So these upgrades are no big deal, if they happen at all.
Are these the droids you're looking for? Report your findings to Grand Moff Tarkin in the comment box below.