Will Android Ever Settle On a Version?

The Android platform is as divided as ever, according to fresh figures from Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) . It's just that the pieces are fresher than before and moving in the right direction.

What's going on?
Last time we checked in on Android's version splits, half of all traffic to the Android Market came from handsets running version 2.1 or above while the rest ran last year's 1.5 or 1.6 software. This time, 70% of the requests over the past two weeks came from 2.1 and above with only 30% looking severely outdated. The latest and greatest iteration, version 2.2, now stands for 29% of all Market traffic.

These statistics are a little bit skewed by the fact that you're not as likely to go shopping in the Market if you've had your phone for months and months. Still, you have to go there to get updates to the apps you care about so the skew might still be a reasonable approximation of user counts.

The fragmentation between various versions of the Android software is often brought up to tear Google a new one. After all, Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) keeps its iPhones synchronized so you can be assured that an application written for the iPhone 3GS will run properly on the iPhone 4, too. Curiously, you don't hear this criticism nearly as often regarding the Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM  ) BlackBerry platform, though handsets on store shelves today reportedly range from version 4.2 to 6.0.

Why, oh, why?
The diversity in Android's user base stems from the range of available hardware with varied horsepower and features. Android 2.2 is supposed to make your phone run faster and adds a bevy of tasty features -- but it takes up more memory than older versions and may not fit on your old-as-Methuselah first-generation Android model.

In addition, Verizon (NYSE: VZ  ) likes to add NFL applications to its smartphones these days, Deutsche Telekom subsidiary T-Mobile enjoys fiddling with the functions of your hardware buttons, Sprint Nextel (NYSE: S  ) needs to support 4G networking that no other handset cares about yet, and so on. If you want a plain vanilla Android handset, you need to buy it straight from Google.

That's not always a terrible problem, though. For example, my very own tennis score application was made to run on Android 1.5 or later, because it simply doesn't need to start a wireless hotspot, support multi-touch controls, or worry much about your screen size. Most applications can be designed to run just fine on older Android platforms, because all the basics were in place pretty early on. If there is a problem with versions diverging, it would be that consumers need to know what they're buying in order to make the right choice.

No end in sight
Given the torrential flow of new Android gadgets (they're not all phones these days) and how manufacturers tend to fiddle with the software before releasing the latest update, it's a safe bet that the fragmentation will continue until Kingdom Come. Properly designed applications will mostly keep working on as-yet-undreamed-of Android versions while bad ones will fail. A year from now, 2.2 will feel quaintly obsolete, and people will wonder why Google doesn't force Samsung, Motorola (NYSE: MOT  ) , and HTC to ship Android 3.5 on every device. And the answer will still be: It's not always possible, and sometimes it's not even a good idea.

That's still no excuse for selling handsets in late 2010 running software developed for the hardware of early 2009 -- but hey, Windows XP is not quite dead yet after nine years on the market, right?

Is Android fragmentation keeping you from buying a Samsung Galaxy S or Motorola Droid X today -- or could you care less about this over-hyped "problem"? Discuss in the comments below.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here. Google and Sprint Nextel are Motley Fool Inside Value selections. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. The Fool owns shares of Google. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. True to its name, The Motley Fool is made up of a motley assortment of writers and analysts, each with a unique perspective; sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree, but we all believe in the power of learning from each other through our Foolish community. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.


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Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On September 13, 2010, at 7:35 PM, alexkhan2000 wrote:

    That's a fine mess that Google has created and will make it easier for Apple to differentiate its iOS platform from the Android chaos.

  • Report this Comment On September 14, 2010, at 12:28 AM, Aeoran wrote:

    My very first search term in Google (keywords "version 14") returns three software packages on the first page - Pinnacle Studio, WinZip, and Fedora. And Fedora is a OS package.

    Please, to all... more fact, less supposition/guessing/gut feels, please. The former is useful; the latter is tiresome and a time waster.

  • Report this Comment On September 14, 2010, at 12:38 AM, Aeoran wrote:

    BTW, I cannot follow the logic at all on how vertical solutions trends into "Apple is beyond Object Orientation."

    I will point out the irony that InfoThatHelp's logic suggests that BlackBerry will succeed more than iPhone in corporations. iPhone forces corporations to mix and match, unless anyone is seriously suggesting that MobileMe is a useful application and a cornerstone of Apple's strength. RIM is the only one-stop shop for corporate solutions. And the proof is in the pudding - iPhone is for now (and has been for the last four years, and counting) a non-factor for serious corporate use.

  • Report this Comment On September 14, 2010, at 2:13 AM, sbmhome wrote:

    I'll tell you why Apple doesn't have the problem that Android faces.

    Apple controls both the software AND the hardware. When you control both, you can write code specifically for the hardware, without the worries that there is some hardware out there that has some functionality or component that will cause it to behave badly or crash.

    This is the same reason Macs are much easier to use than PC's.

    Now, since you don't have to worry about a ton of different hardware setups, you can concentrate on things like stability, user interface, and easy of use.

    As a software developer, it puzzles me that Google is allowing this to happen. The obviously haven't thought everything through.

    Another example of this is Verizon forcing users of the Samsung facinate to use Bing, without the option to use Google search. Let me repeat that...there is no way to use Google search on Google's own Android OS with the Fascinate!

    If I was google, I would have put a statement in the open licience agreement that you cannot replace Google search if you want to use Android as your OS. There are A LOT of holes that they need to shore up.

    Btw, I have the HTC Incredible and Android is definetely getting much better...but there need to keep pushing forward.

  • Report this Comment On September 14, 2010, at 10:37 AM, rtichy wrote:

    The real potential problem that Google may have in the future is if Google decides that the installed base of Android phones would serve Google better if they were all on some "minimal" release level. In that situation Google may find itself at odds with the phone companies and/or hardware manufacturers to provide new drivers so that a phone can be upgraded to a particular release of Android. Or Google may find itself at odds with a phone company over the upgrading of telco provided software on the Android handsets. The costs of writing, re-writing and developing work-arounds could end up being borne by Google alone, since the hardware manufacturers are not real interested in maintaining software for obsolete handsets.

    As I stated the problem will exist when Google decides it wants more from handsets already in the field. Maybe they will never care about their inability to extract some new piece of info from an Android 1.6 device, or maybe they'll decide it is crucial to Google.

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