Choose an Android, any Android.

If Android fragmentation is such a serious concern, Google must be thinking it’s the most agreeable of problems.

Android, the mobile operating system now found on about one in every two smartphones in the world, hit the market less than four years ago. Since its humble beginnings on the G1 on T-Mobile, Android has found it way onto to all manner of devices. Tablets, large (10-inch) and small (7-inch), smartphones of all sizes, and even the new Amazon Kindle Fire all run some form of Android. There are also countless versions of the OS – Honeycomb, Gingerbread, Ice Cream Sandwich; not to mention various dot releases of each flavor. On top of that, several vendors, such as Samsung and HTC, add their own custom interfaces on top of stock Android, further aggrandizing the potpourri. This is fragmentation. How on earth can Google manage the consumer experience if its operating system is mating uncontrollably? Apple, on the other hand, has one iOS version that is uniformly updated across its devices (iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch).

Some suggest that Google has let the fragmentation problem get so far out of hand that it will never again gain control.

Why is the splintering of an OS across so many devices, with so many versions, sprinkled with so many customizations a concern?

For one, the user experience is at risk…

If I buy a Samsung Galaxy Nexus, a new Verizon smartphone that runs Android 4 (Ice Cream Sandwich), I will have a markedly different experience if I buy a HTC Inspire running Android 2.2 (Froyo) on AT&T. Further, if I buy an Android tablet to complement my smartphone, I might be surprised to experience an entirely different interface; that’s because tablets run Android 3 (Honeycomb). Jumping from one device to the next, a consumer could potentially get confused and have to learn the differences. That’s simply not the case with Apple. If you use an iPhone, you know the look and feel of the iPad – apps, for example, are deleted on both devices the exact same way.

… And developers could get flummoxed…

Developers are critical. Get them on your side (and early), and you have a huge opportunity to expand the library of apps. Google and Apple have both succeeded here. Microsoft, RIM (BlackBerry) and others have had challenges getting developers on board. Follow the money is the developer mantra. Apple entices with huge revenue opportunity. Google, less so – but that are so many different types of devices running Android that developers can at least see the light, even if doesn’t pay as well.

Stark on Android

But fragmentation makes it more difficult to program apps. A developer needs to test a seemingly dizzying array of permutations. I’m guessing (I’m not a developer) there is even more headache related to understanding all the nuances between the different SDKs related to Gingerbread, Honeycomb, and ICS. How to manage all the chaos?

I wouldn’t be surprising to discover that developers take a short cut here and there in an effort to get their app to market. The result? Problems on the user side. Bugs. Crashes. And who does the consumer blame? “This damn Android phone. I should’ve stuck with Apple!”

…What, Google Worry?

Despite these issues, I don’t think the idea of “fragmentation” is nearly as bad as it’s made out to be.

Android is on a massive tear (though its growth appears to be slowing). According to some reports it now owns 47% (NPD Group, Oct/Nov 2011) of the market. That’s an astonishing feat given its relatively young age.

The business model – open, multi-vendor, horizontal integration – is the opposite of Apple, yet equally successful. Vendors see Android as a highly customizable platform for building specialized apps. You’re more likely to see Android used to power home automation apps, or to manage in-car information systems, or to drive e-readers (Amazon Kindle Fire).

Google, for its part, is already taking measures to stem the tide.

Most recently, it released design guidelines for Android. This will help developers adhere to practices that will result in a uniform user experience (e.g. “Sprinkle encouragement”). True to Google’s approach, it’s a “guideline” not a dictate.

Ice Cream Sandwich could be another attempt by Google to reduce the number of versions of Android, and to ease the user experience across multiple devices. Unlike the current Honeycomb/Gingerbread split across tablets and smartphones respectively, ICS is an integrated version of Android designed to run on both.

Also, Google has mandated that devices shipping with ICS, such as the new Samsung Galaxy Nexus, also include the stock Android experience (theme), called “Holo”.

Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, refers to fragmentation as “differentiation”:

“Differentiation means that you have a choice and the people who are making the phones, they’re going to compete on their view of innovation, and they’re going to try and convince you that theirs is better than somebody else.”

It’s really the expected outcome of a strategy that is open, multi-vendor. The last large tech company we saw successfully employ differentiation, albeit with a non open source approach, was called Microsoft. Windows, like – gasp – Android, runs on multiple devices, made by multiple vendors, with multiple variations and customizations. It didn’t work out too badly; ultimately Microsoft crushed Apple… in round one that is.