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Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) is often criticized for letting the Android platform fracture into small camps of different software versions. Official statistics from Google's own Android application market show that exactly half of all app downloads today go to the modern 2.1 version of Android, but the rest of the market still belongs to the older 1.5 and 1.6 platforms.
The Motorola (NYSE: MOT ) Droid phone, as sold by Verizon (NYSE: VZ ) Wireless amid a heavy marketing blitz, represents about 34% of the Android market all by itself, according to analysis by mobile advertising service Chitika, and that model runs Android 2.1.
Critics see this "fragmentation" as a big problem because a piece of application software that's developed for the Android 2.1 environment may not run on older handsets. That's presumably why Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) insists on keeping the iPhone model lineup small and manageable, giving developers the largest, most cross-compatible marketplace to work with.
Well, I call baloney on several grounds:
- Android is an open platform, and the only handset where Google directly controls anything is the Nexus One. Big G won't tell Motorola, HTC, or Samsung how to manage their software versions.
- Software upgrades do happen. The HTC Hero (aka Droid Eris) has moved from 1.5 to 2.1 in recent months; the venerable T-Mobile, a unit of Deutsche Telekom (NYSE: DT ) myTouch 3G by HTC will get upgraded from 1.6 to the tasty 2.2 "Froyo" version "soon," as T-Mobile pledges to have "no phones left behind."
- Platform updates add new features, but they generally don't muck around with the basic architecture of the Android system. Write a birthday reminder app for Android, and you won't need the functionality introduced in 2.1 or 2.2 -- feel free to target the entire market. But if your app uses Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync or HTML5 browser features, newer upgrades like 2.1 become the baseline, and those silly myTouch 3G users will just have to experience your software's greatness after their platform refresh.
As a myTouch 3G user myself, I'm drooling uncontrollably over the improvements in Froyo, but patience is still a virtue. Android is as successful as it is today precisely because of rapid innovation and a diverse field of end-user products. If you bought a T-Mobile G1 in 2008, you were an early adopter with all the risks and benefits of that status. So your handset is obsolete now? Join the original iPhone owners, whose beloved gadgets won't see Apple's latest and greatest operating system at all. That's the march of progress on the bleeding edge, folks.
Is the Android user base fragmented? Oh, sure. Is it a problem? Not at all. If you're stuck with an older Android phone and insist on a fresher software platform, nobody is stopping you from buying a more modern handset, after all. Hey, that's how Apple does it, right?