Can Android survive its forks and fragments?

The Nexus One keeps getting better versions of the Android OS while developers complain of too many versions and too few market payouts. Is Android coming apart at the seams?

Molly Wood Former Executive Editor
Molly Wood was an executive editor at CNET, author of the Molly Rants blog, and host of the tech show, Always On. When she's not enraging fanboys of all stripes, she can be found offering tech opinions on CBS and elsewhere, and offering opinions on everything else to anyone who will listen.
Molly Wood
5 min read

Updated to include Google comment and Symbian news.

Rejoice, ye Nexus One owners, for you and only you are the lucky recipients of multitouch. And I'm wondering: does this software update for this one Android phone spell serious trouble for the whole endeavor? There are now, on the market, Android phones running versions of the OS that range from 1.5 to 2.1, and the Nexus One keeps pulling farther ahead of even the once-mighty Motorola Droid. There are brand new reports that Google has forked its mobile OS, and Android drivers have been removed from the Linux kernel. And developers are feeling unhappy with their profits from the Android Marketplace and left out of Nexus One development altogether. Is this supposedly open-source, unified mobile OS forking and sporking its way to a developer revolt? And can a mobile OS without a thriving army of app developers ever hope to take down the iPhone?

Nexus One, the anointed one

It's not completely unusual for mobile phones to be running different versions of their respective operating systems, or to be unable to upgrade. Older Windows Mobile phones running Windows Mobile 5.0 or 6.0 can't be upgraded to Windows Mobile 6.5, and even support for upgrades from 6.1 is spotty and on a phone-by-phone basis. But it is unusual (and confusing) that phones currently for sale--or even upcoming, like the Motorola Devour, which will ship with Android 1.6--are carrying such widely varying versions of the OS. And that, coupled with the variances in the phones themselves, is making the job of developers a heck of a lot harder.

"The game has changed a lot with multiple devices and different screen sizes and different processors and manufacturers," says Justin Grammens, founder of Minneapolis-based Localtone, a mobile app development company. "The one thing that's been really frustrating is that the carriers are putting out phones with Android 1.5 on them, still. I don't know why any carrier would put out older versions. I would hope that Verizon would see [the Nexus One upgrade] and say, we should push this out to the Droid, too."

So, is it the carriers' fault that certain phones have better versions of the OS? Well, kind of. A Verizon spokesperson says Google pushes out the software upgrades, they test them, and they decide when it's appropriate to push them out to devices. However, the software may not be compatible with older or lower-powered phones, or, she suggested, some phones may get older--or maybe just lesser--versions of Android so as to maintain "diversity of choice" and "a different price point."

For its part, Google said the carriers do indeed have control over which phones get updated when. A Google spokesperson says, "Not all Android phones are managed devices. Google operates the [over-the-air] server for devices branded 'with Google' or 'Google' (as with the Nexus One). However, it is not at Google's sole discretion to issue software updates. Our partners, such as OEMs and operators, decide in the majority of cases when and what updates to issue to their customers." So, ok, it's the carriers' fault, then.

But hang on: Google's not totally off the hook. The company has claimed that the Nexus One and its 1GHz Snapdragon processor simply has the horsepower to support multitouch, while, apparently, the (roughly) 600MHz Droid does not. I guess we're to assume that the little Droid Eris, with its 528MHz processor, couldn't possibly handle multitouch or the 2.1 upgrade. Except I think that's probably horse dookie. The Palm Pre and diminutive Palm Pixi are similarly powered and both support native capacitive multitouch. And the Android 1.5-powered HTC Hero is running multitouch just fine, thank you very much. And we know that the Droid and most of the other Android phones on the market have the hardware support necessary to enable multitouch. In sum, almost any of the current crop of Android phones could offer the additional features of 2.1, but...they just don't, because of a combination of carriers wanting variable pricing and Google wanting specially branded Google phones with all the bells and whistles.

I can certainly understand, at least to some degree, the rationale that different phones at different prices provide more or fewer features as appropriate. But it seems like those features should maybe come in terms of speed, screen size, number of megapixels and so on, especially if the result of all these versions and phones is that developers ultimately run for the hills, tearing out clumps of hair as they go. And let's not forget that the Symbian mobile OS just went fully open-source, so developers in search of a less controlling app development environment can look that way if Android gets too annoying. So, can Google overcome and keep the Android app machine chugging? Maybe, but it's going to take some nurturing, and Grammens and other developers aren't exactly feeling the love.

"They released the Nexus One without even releasing a developer kit so no one could test any applications against it," he says. And the multiple versions of the OS, the multiple devices, the carrier confusion and the occasional developer snubs do suggest that app writers and Google might have slightly different goals. After all, he says, "at the end of the day, I think Google just wants to sell ads."

Overall, Grammens is still optimistic about the Android opportunity. He says he sells plenty of apps in the Android marketplace and thinks that if Android phones and the iPhone ever end up in head-to-head competition, the phones will speak for themselves. And I agree, to a certain extent, but Google also has every chance to blow it at this crucial juncture. You don't have to have a completely hegemonic, closed-source platform like the iPhone to succeed--and it's not like iPhone developers are loving the willy-nilly app-approval process on that side of the fence, either. But it sounds to me like Google needs to get its apps in gear, communicate better with its developers, and do a better job of explaining to consumers like me why some phones will get more Android love than others. It's time to do some PR, now, or I fear the Android experiment will power down just as it's starting to get some traction.