Google's Android anti-fragmentation push is vital

Reports earlier this week painted an ominous future for Google's open-source strategy with Android, the company's mobile device platform. Gone, insiders at OEMs and carriers suggested, was the eager-to-please ambition and flexibility of the early days, back when Google was desperate for market penetration and manufacturer support. Instead, they claimed, Android head Andy Rubin had become a harsh gatekeeper, doling out early access to new iterations of the OS only to those who'll toe the Google line, attempting to trip handsets that used rival services, and doing it all under the banner of "non-fragmentation." Open-source lovers wrung their hands; iOS addicts basked in a righteous glow.

Android, so the arguments went, was supposed to be our open-source salvation. More flexible in the access it allowed to its code than iOS or Windows Mobile, but with the heft of Google behind it so that, unlike LiMo, it would stand a chance at brand recognition among mainstream consumers, it would skirt the line between speed and reliability in its development and updates. Google was ambitious and relentless in its pursuit of partners among manufacturers and carriers.

The versatility was clear from the start. "The Android platform will be made available under one of the most progressive, developer-friendly open-source licenses, which gives mobile operators and device manufacturers significant freedom and flexibility to design products" the original Open Handset Alliance press release proclaims. "Handset manufacturers and wireless operators will be free to customize Android in order to bring to market innovative new products faster and at a much lower cost."

Sure enough, the number of Android devices on the market snowballed, and with them came untold variations on the core platform, just as Google invited. HTC pushed in one direction with Sense, other OEMs like Samsung, Motorola and LG developed their own UIs, and operators took advantage of the latitude to make their own modifications.

Yet, look at what consumers are demanding, and you'll see it's consistency. Last month's J.D. Power 2011 survey results found Apple's iPhone taking top-spot among smartphones for customer satisfaction, notably scoring full marks for "ease of operation" whereas its Android-reliant rivals managed 3/5. Perhaps more galling for Motorola and HTC, the second and third place holders, the iPhone scored top marks for satisfaction with handset features while they managed 4/5, despite in many cases their Android devices being better equipped than the Apple alternative.

In fact, despite the improvements in hardware and software since the 2010 survey, HTC and Motorola actually dropped in their scores (Apple did too, incidentally, but by a far smaller amount). The message from users is clear: they want a straightforward user experience and the tightly-constrained iOS environment delivers on that. With those raw figures in front of them, it's hardly a surprise that Google would look to standardize the platform.

Still, for every fragment avoided, there's the possibility of legitimate, interesting – and, dare I say, useful – innovation being squandered. Meeting with ASUS this week to discuss the launch of the Eee Pad Transformer, one of the company's engineers pointed out that Google had taken issue with their homegrown Live Wallpaper, suggesting it tapped into the underlying code (to show battery status via an animated water level) in a way that they weren't happy with. The end result, ASUS said, was that the wallpaper might not be present on the hardware that eventually ships.

Now, a wallpaper probably isn't something to get too worked up over – though it's definitely easier to glance at it and see what state the battery is in than it is to check the far smaller generic gauge in the Honeycomb toolbar – but it's indicative of some of the issues OEMs using Android will increasingly face in the coming months. Question is, to what extent does not being in the first wave of partners affect your competitiveness in the market.

As we've heard, the message from operators and manufacturers is that Google restricting access to those who won't fragment will have a huge impact. They've even called in the US Department of Justice over it. The argument is that, by missing out on the very latest release Google's engineers develop, they fall behind rivals. Yet look at something like the HTC Incredible S: it runs Android 2.2 Froyo, one release (and several months) behind 2.3 Gingerbread on the HTC Desire S, and yet not only are the two handsets near-identical in their appearance, the functionality is hardly different too.

That's because of the extent of HTC's tinkering, taking Sense so far that the underlying OS is far less important. In fact, despite running the newer version on the same hardware, our benchmarking found the Desire S to perform worse than the Incredible S. Android was supposed to be something anybody could modify, and HTC has run with that: not just slapping a new interface on top, for the sake of looking just different enough on store shelves, but really making the platform their own. If Google clamping down on fragmentation is enough to prevent mediocre, skin-deep UIs then I'm all for it.