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Why Android Versions Don't Matter

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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.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns shares in Google, but he holds no other position in any of the companies discussed here. Sprint Nextel is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick, Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation, and Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.

Read/Post Comments (7) | Recommend This Article (9)

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  • Report this Comment On March 03, 2010, at 4:24 PM, prginww wrote:

    "Google explicitly doesn't want a unified experience and encourages its many partners to play around with the Android platform."

    Which, of course, is a PITA for developers. It harkens back to the days of DOS & early Windows, where users had to check which video cards, etc, were required. Microsoft learned from that and demands more standardization now, to the great relief of users. (Drivers can still be a problem, but nothing like having the "wrong" video card was.)

  • Report this Comment On March 03, 2010, at 4:26 PM, prginww wrote:

    It seems like variation in Android software and user interface from one phone to the next would make it more difficult for software developers to build consistent, high quality apps for Android. If true, that would be a negative for Google’s Android platform relative to Apple’s iPhone/App store platform.

  • Report this Comment On March 03, 2010, at 4:51 PM, prginww wrote:

    I have heard a lot of hot air from various forum posters about the supposed difficulty of programming for multiple handsets, but I don't see that borne out in the developer community or in the apps that are available.

    All the same stuff I had on my G1 works great on my Nexus One.

  • Report this Comment On March 03, 2010, at 4:52 PM, prginww wrote:

    In my opinion it all to clear, if Google unifies the whole user experience the manufactures will have to compete in price since hardware has to be seamless. All these incumbents listed are in the so called Red Sea strategy. It is funny Google keeps the blue sea and let the red sea to the adopters. I understand Android's adoption was the only alternative. Based on the past experience they could make hardware but they did not have the capacity to compete in software, the total user experience.

    It is going to be interesting to see the market crashing incumbents, clearly the first one to die is Palm.

    Meanwhile Apple is expanding its ecosystem, aka Blue Sea.

  • Report this Comment On March 04, 2010, at 6:48 AM, prginww wrote:

    Verizon and AT&T = The Most Expensive Wireless Calling Plans in America

    Wireless Profit Margins:

    Verizon Wireless = 45 percent

    AT&T = 39 percent

    Sprint = 18.2 percent

    Now we know where Verizon and AT&T get all that money to run commercials 24x7 and pay out big executive bonuses -- the American consumer.

    Not all pricing claims are the same. The advantages consumers get with Sprint’s $69.99 Everything Data plan include nationwide unlimited text and picture messaging, unlimited Web, unlimited GPS navigation and unlimited calling to any mobile in America, compared to AT&T and Verizon’s $69.99 pricing plans, which are good for unlimited talk only. And Sprint’s $69.99 plans are available with any phone while AT&T and Verizon’s are limited to lower-end phones.

    AT&T and Verizon have attempted to confuse the marketplace by lowering their pricing to $69.99, but theirs are for calling only. In today’s economic environment customers are interested in more than just voice pricing. They also want the best value for all the other things they rely on their wireless phone for and Sprint delivers. Sprint's Everything Data plans start at $69.99 per month and include Any Mobile, Anytime for unlimited calling with any U.S. wireless user, plus unlimited text, picture and video messaging, e-mail, Web browsing, social networking and more.

    4G wireless--which operates at speeds up to 10 times greater than today's 3G networks--could become a reality for many businesses and consumers over the coming year. Sprint, the current 4G leader, says it will introduce its first 4G smartphone before mid-year.

  • Report this Comment On March 04, 2010, at 2:42 PM, prginww wrote:

    Anders: You might want to read up on "Open Software" before calling Android "open" (for the nth time). Fundamental parts of Android are not under an "open" license. Not even Google makes that claim. Even the "open" parts are only open for Telcos and OEMs, not the end user. There are as many hacks and homebrew firmware packages for Android devices, as there are for "jailbroken" iPhones. The only potential difference for the end user could be, that an application gets approved for the Android store and not for the iPhone (or Palm or RIM device) - but that is highly hypothetical. Think Verizon will sell porn? Or AT&T will allow tethering apps on Android devices, but not on the iPhone? Nope.

    If you watch the Android developer forums, there are developers (quite a few) having problems with the multi-version mess - especially with testing applications without buying every single handset themselves. The fragmentation is not only in OS versions, but also input methods (no touch, single touch, multitouch, keyboard or not, trackball or not), screen resolutions, hardware performance, etc. This adds up to a point where one application may "run" on all models, but has no chance to be designed and optimal for all models. This means more work for the developer, or a lot of bad ratings from the buyers having a only "so-so" supported device. The delays in updating the SDK are not making it any better.

    The next issue is buyers remorse. iPhone and Pre users (as an example, there are others) always get the latest software at the same time. Buyers of the three year old original iPhone are still "in the loop" (as far as the hardware allows it) and the resale prices are still through the roof. People buying a Droid in December 2009 are still waiting for 2.1. And try to sell a G1 and see what you can get for it... I am not making that up, Internet forums are full of moaning Droid (and 1.5/1.6 device) buyers.

    Android is suffering exactly from the same problem as Linux and its gazillion of distributions and desktop managers... none of them ever reaches critical mass. And Google with their "everything is a beta" approach are unlikely to find a strategy immediately. Android will gain market share for sure (and it is an interesting system), I do not yet see it becoming that huge success this site is making out of it all the time. All competitors are moving targets and Nokia, Apple, RIM, MS, etc. will not just watch Google.

  • Report this Comment On March 05, 2010, at 12:54 PM, prginww wrote:

    S is going to rule the phone market by 2012. You heard it here first.

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