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Going 'Round and 'Round the Android Issue

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Some things
are so

big that
it's hard

to tell
you're going

round going
round them.
-- A.R. Ammons

Maybe that's why it took Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) so long to do something about the highly fragmented Android platform: the problem is so big that it's easily overlooked.

The much-touted openness of Android opened the doors for developers to write whatever programs they wanted, and for consumers to install and run code from a variety of sources. So far, so good -- except that with that freedom comes a plethora of badly thought-out and executed apps, which raises questions about quality control. Oh dear.

OK, so perhaps a third-party app store could clean up that mess by imposing stricter quality standards? (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) is trying its hand at the Android app store game and Verizon (NYSE: VZ  ) is getting ready to follow suit. But then you're applying a different set of standards to each marketplace, making the user experience very different from one handset model to the next. Uh-oh.

App developers don't like to deal with a huge variety of devices, because it makes testing more difficult. They also don't enjoy submitting their apps to a spectrum of app stores, just to make sure they didn't miss their best customers.

Then there's the fact that a really open development model makes it A-OK for Verizon or Sprint Nextel (NYSE: S  ) to litter their Android phones with their own apps, themes, skins, ringtones, and sundry network-specific items. That's after Motorola Mobility (NYSE: MMI  ) and HTC are done adding their own manufacturer-specific flavor, of course. In the end, this freedom of choice creates a Jackson Pollock canvas of unique and different user experiences.

Compare and contrast this to the Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) model: one hardware platform, one operating system, one experience. The end. With the iPhone, you know exactly what you're gonna get.

Android's fragmentation troubles stem directly from its openness. That's also why Google is coming under fire for trying to fix it.

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, device designers and service providers now need approval from Android chief Andy Rubin before applying any monstrous tweaks to their software. "The Google that once welcomed all comers to help get its mobile software off the ground has become far more discriminating," says Businessweek, and that includes early access to new versions of the Android codebase. The new, hard-line code-access attitude explains why Google is keeping the source code for tablet platform Honeycomb a secret for now: Presumably, some would-be Honeycomb eaters haven't agreed to the tougher standards.

Leave it alone and watch Android slipping into total chaos, or play bad cop and take flak for hypocrisy. It ain't easy being Google. As a part-time Android developer myself, I'll settle for delayed source code releases in return for a stable platform. Let Google copy a page from the Apple playbook -- just don't copy the whole kit and kaboodle.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns shares of Google but holds no other position in any of the companies discussed here. Yes, that tribute to National Poetry Month is the entire, unabridged work. Google is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation. Apple and are Motley Fool Stock Advisor choices. The Fool has written puts on Apple. Motley Fool Options has recommended a bull call spread position on Apple. The Fool owns shares of Apple, and Google. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. 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 (12) | Recommend This Article (4)

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 April 04, 2011, at 8:14 PM, Oldfool103 wrote:

    And all of this is why I am happy we have an iPhone and an iPad and an AppleTV and an iMac...

    You can all go round and round about what a wonderful Android world you live in. I read the morning paper, check my stocks, e-mail, listen to a couple of podcasts, and then go on my way, without a single concern about anything. I guess I am just iHappy.

  • Report this Comment On April 04, 2011, at 8:41 PM, baldheadeddork wrote:

    The quality of programs from Apple's AppStore can be hit and miss, too. Stitcher gets into endless loops on syncing that requires rebooting the phone to fix, TSheets drains the battery, and let's not forget the recent App-Away-The-Gay. (I'd love to see Apple's testing notes for that one.) If you haven't had to deal with one POS app on your iPhone, you're not trying.

    Different skins are a red herring. PC desktops have been user customized for decades and if you have any experience on Windows you know how to find your way around on all of them. I've had to set up Androids from several manufacturers and have never had a problem finding my way around.

    Also, Anders, people have been harping about the lack of oversight issue in the Android marketplace for as long as there have been Android phones, yet their market share keeps growing. How many people have to buy Android phones before you'll admit maybe it isn't a problem after all?

  • Report this Comment On April 04, 2011, at 9:15 PM, xmmj wrote:

    Your article shows a total lack of understanding of the issue here.

    It is not the APPS that are causing the fragmentation problem. They are the ones who have to DEAL with the problem. They are NOT the cause of it.

    The cause is two-fold:

    1- There are many different flavors of Android and they do not all run on all the different hardware platforms.

    2- The issue with the "freedom" is that (supposedly) the OEMs (manufacturers) can change the OS - this is the freedom that Android is supposed to allow. However, when they do customize the OS then apps - even those written for the same flavor of Android - may not work. So the platform has become fragmented at many different levels.

    On top of that - some of the OEMs even went so far as to change it so Google was not the default search engine! OMG now that was a real affront to Google.

    So now they are clamping down, tightening the rules, deciding who will get which new version first, and telling people "NO you cannot change the OS. You gotta use only what we give you."

    Oh I imagine you can still find source code and play with it and recompile it with your own little changes. BUT - don't count on being able to slap it into a cell phone platform, and call it Android. Not any more.

  • Report this Comment On April 04, 2011, at 11:06 PM, ConstableOdo wrote:

    Android is open, alright. Open like a sewer. Anyone can dump whatever they want on Android smartphones, both carriers and hardware vendors. I don't know why serious developers that want to make money even bother with Android. It must be quite a headache to develop on so many different variations of hardware. I wish I had more of a background on Windows development on different brands of hardware. Did Windows have as much control over OEM so that all software ran on computer hardware with similar levels of processing power? I could see that games might have been a problem but most non-intensive programs probably ran on most OEM Windows computers. Is there a parallel between Windows OS and Android? I can't say.

    I'm certain it would be easier for developers to write apps on iOS where the most variation is memory size and processor capabilities from generation to generation. Over the last four years, iPhone hardware hasn't changed very much at all and usually OS support lasts about two years. I've heard of Android devices that can break OS support in six months. That would be a short life for an Android app if software only runs on the latest versions of Android.

    I'm far from knowledgeable about Android app development, I only know that many developers say that the platform is fragmented to some degree, but to what degree I don't really know. I feel it would be wise for Google to take more control and it looks like they might do just that. I think it would be better for the average consumer. But maybe the average consumer is already satisfied with Android, so any control changes Google takes may not even be noticed by them.

  • Report this Comment On April 05, 2011, at 2:31 AM, Aryabod wrote:

    Last year the Android platform had 50,000 Apps and Apple fanboys spewed their venom on anyone choosing to compare Android with the iPhone OS. However, in less than a year Android based phones in the US have surpassed Blackberry and Apple iPhone in shear numbers.

    The Android platform can now boast having over 300,000 applications. It can also boast selling more phones than the iPhone 4 at Verizon, which indicates that the consumer has finally caught on to the fact that Apple's iPhone is way behind the curve when it comes to technology and innovation. Verizon has manifested that the consumer will eventually pay more attention to the quality of a device than the hyperbole surrounding its fashionable aura. As an old English cliche goes, "Fashion is for those that have no style."

    Nevertheless, the very essence of Android's fragmentation is what gives it its character. Not all of us like to live in an Orwellian Apple dictatorship.

  • Report this Comment On April 05, 2011, at 3:34 AM, wsw29wi wrote:

    xmmj - agree with you - and will add this - do you think Google intentially deployed Android as a free for all knowing that the OEMs would run into each other with their own silly customizations and create an impossibly difficult environment for developers, at which time google would say "Hey! This isn't working -- now you must use THIS" and the "this" is the code that allows Google to own the OS functionality of all the OEMs that are now completely in bed with them? I've been in this biz a long time, and carriers and oem's are laughably predictable - personaly, I think Google took them for a ride and now the OEMs and Carriers have nowhere else to turn. BREW, J2ME, Windows 7? Not happening....

  • Report this Comment On April 05, 2011, at 3:39 AM, wsw29wi wrote:

    Aryabod - developers aren't looking for character - they're looking for revenue. Android has absolutely surpassed the iPhone in market share - but is woefully, embarrassingly behind in monetization.

    I'm not pro apple by any means, but you sound naive saying they are 'way behind the curve" - what does the android OS offer that is so superior to an iOS device?

  • Report this Comment On April 05, 2011, at 8:44 AM, baldheadeddork wrote:

    @wsw29wi - If the Android app market is "woefully, embarrassingly behind in monetization", then the market will sort that out. If developers can't make money, they'll leave, right?

    That they haven't kinda undercuts your point. If you have numbers to back up your claim, I'd love to see them.

    What does Android offer that is superior to iOS? Compare an iPhone to almost any Android device and the iOS looks and feels really old. Apple hasn't made any significant changes to the user interface since they launched the first iOS four years ago.

    Android also offers LTE phones right now. With Apple you have to wait until this fall, or maybe next spring. 4G is a game changer and showing up six months late is a bad place to be.

  • Report this Comment On April 05, 2011, at 9:25 AM, mdtopper wrote:

    @ baldheadeddork

    if it aint broke, dont fix it

  • Report this Comment On April 05, 2011, at 2:12 PM, gslusher wrote:


    "It can also boast selling more phones than the iPhone 4 at Verizon, which indicates that the consumer has finally caught on to the fact that Apple's iPhone is way behind the curve when it comes to technology and innovation."

    There you go again, comparing ONE phone to dozens from different manufacturers. I've recently read that the iPhone 4 is Verizon's best-selling phone. What you're doing is exactly like saying, "FordGMHyundaiHondaIsuzuMazdaNissanKia outsells Toyota! Toyota is DOOMED!"

  • Report this Comment On April 05, 2011, at 2:18 PM, gslusher wrote:


    "What does Android offer that is superior to iOS? Compare an iPhone to almost any Android device and the iOS looks and feels really old. Apple hasn't made any significant changes to the user interface since they launched the first iOS four years ago."

    Why change a winner? In any case, the iOS UI has changed a bit, though it looks pretty much the same on the surface.

    I was in a Radio Shack store a few days ago. A salesman was talking to an older couple about smartphones. He said that HE preferred Android because it's "open" (it's not), but warned that "Every Android phone is different. If you buy one now, then replace it in a year or two, you'll have to learn a whole new system." In contrast, he said, "With Apple, it just works and all the phones work the same." They bought an iPhone.

    "Android also offers LTE phones right now. With Apple you have to wait until this fall, or maybe next spring. 4G is a game changer and showing up six months late is a bad place to be."

    1. That affects less than 1/3 of the people in the US. My area won't get 4G for another 1-2 years, maybe longer. Meanwhile, Verizon's 3G in this area is much, much slower than ATT's 3G.

    2. "Android" doesn't offer ANY phones. Get that through your head: Android is NOT a phone manufacturer. Various manufacturers make phones using a wide range of versions of Android. VERY few of those have 4G capability.

  • Report this Comment On April 05, 2011, at 8:34 PM, baldheadeddork wrote:

    @ mtopper & gslusher: You're kidding, right? The next tech company that succeeds with "if it ain't broke don't fix it" will be the first. There is no better or surer way to turn yourself into roadkill than standing with a legendary old design for too long.

    The kid at Radio Shack didn't know what he was talking about. (Shocker, huh?) Navigating and finding user controls is not notably different from one Android phone to the next.

    A third of the US is kind of a big deal, and it's going to be growing a lot over the next. Also remember that these phones come with a two-year contract. If 4G is coming to your area during your contract, then it's going to be a huge deal. If Apple is a little late it will lose some sales, but if they don't have an LTE phone until next summer it will do real damage.

    And get your panties out of a knot, Phyllis. Android isn't a phone manufacturer, but you can get LTE on an Android phone right now and more are coming.

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