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Differentiation leads to fragmented, confused Android

While differentiation is one of the key benefits behind Android, it's leading to fragmentation.

One year after the introduction of the T-Mobile G1, three of the top-four carriers in the United States are offering Google Android handsets. And with each model bringing something new and unique to the market, everything is rosy, right? Not so fast. While differentiation is one of the key benefits behind Android, it's leading to fragmentation. Thus, one of the biggest benefits is becoming a drawback.

At the time of this writing, there are three versions of Android on the market. On Verizon Wireless, the recently released Motorola Droid has Android 2.0, while the carrier's HTC Droid Eris is running Android 1.5 under the Sense UI. The phones were released on the same day yet they are on polar opposites in terms of Android.

What's more, there are four other handsets running Android 1.5: Sprint's HTC Hero and Samsung Moment, and T-Mobile's Samsung Behold II and Motorola Cliq. And what about the first two Android phones, the G1 and MyTouch 3G? Both handset have Android 1.6 under the hood. Confused yet?

The differences stem from the desire handset manufacturers have to differentiate themselves. Rather than go for the stock Android experience, companies are opting to add their own flavors to help stand out. The problem is that Android's updates come from the handset maker and not Google. As we're learning, it could be months before HTC or Motorola catch their handsets up with 1.6, let alone 2.0.

By then it's not unrealistic to think that Google will be ready to push its next build (Flan) out to handsets. And remember that much anticipated Sony Ericsson Xperia X10? Though it's not expected until February, it too is slated to have 1.5 unless the company can get 1.6 or 2.0 loaded before it heads out the door.

This is becoming confusing and discouraging to current and potential customers. Normally, the newer the phone, the more advanced the operating system. But with Android, the two oldest phones have more software capability than the six that followed. Imagine the frustration of saving up a couple hundred dollars to get the latest and greatest handset only to find that older phones have more potential. Google recently made its Google Maps Navigation available to Android 1.6 devices. Sadly, this still leaves over half of all Android phones without the feature.

It doesn't get any easier for developers. Many are practically pulling their hair out over minor updates and bug fixes. With each new handset comes a different camera video tweak or extra line of code to address video drivers. Differentiation in hardware is just as big of a headache. It might not be a bad idea for Google to step up and set some standards or recommend specific hardware. The sooner all of these things are addressed, the better.