SciTechTalk: Google to rein in Android

By JIM ALGAR, United Press International  |  May 20, 2012 at 6:15 AM
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Google's recent decision to take a more active role in how its Android mobile operating system is used is seen as an attempt to address the single most vexing problem in the Android world -- the fragmentation of the one, "pure" Android into hundreds of slightly different versions through its modification by smartphone and tablet makers.

Google also hopes to better compete with Apple, which keeps a tight rein on its operating system and knows that every iPhone, iPad and iPod is running the exact same version of the software.

Google's problem with Android is that it was released as open-source software, available for anyone to use and also -- and here is where the trouble comes in -- to modify in any way they see fit.

Smartphone manufacturers, almost without exception, have modified Android to create their own custom versions, with modified user interfaces and features not found in the "pure" release version to differentiate their phone offerings from those of the competition.

So Sprint phones run on "Sprint Android" and T-Mobile phones come with "T-Mobile Android" and so on.

Tablet manufacturers have followed suit.

The problems arose when new versions of the stock Android were released. The upgrades could only make their way into the Android device universe painfully slowly, as each manufacturer had to go back to square one to modify the new version so it could successfully begin to update all the phones or tablets of its existing customers. This often took months or even longer, leading to customer frustration.

Compare that with Apple. When it was ready to release iOS 5, it knew that every Apple device out there running iOS 4 was running a single version -- Apple's version -- and was therefore ready to be upgraded without problems or delays.

Google made one attempt to offer consumers its own branded phone running pure, unmodified Android but could not compete with the marketing clout of established cellphone carriers, who continued to offer heavily subsidized phones running their versions of the operating system.

To improve the fragmentation situation, Google announced plans this week to give multiple mobile-device makers early access to new releases of Android and said it would sell devices made by those manufacturers directly to consumers.

Previously, Google's practice had been to choose just one hardware manufacturer to produce a "lead device" running the latest version of Android, before releasing the upgraded software to other phone and tablet makers, after which it could only sit and watch as the fragmentation began all over again.

By working with as many as five manufacturers and selling direct rather than through cellphone carriers, Google and its hardware partners could get devices to market faster, often by several months, analysts said.

Rajeev Chand, head of research at Rutberg & Co., said the Android world has turned into a "Wild West" in which app developers have struggled to make sure apps are compatible with hundreds of different Android-powered devices with their modified versions of the operating system.

Device makers and carriers alike have left their imprint on devices, meaning the "consumer experience is highly variant," he told The Wall Street Journal.

Google's shift in strategy is likely meant "to create a more standardized experience for consumers and app developers," similar to that of Apple, Chand said.

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