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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? Amazon.com (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.