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Horseradish, Eric Schmidt. Android is fragmented

Programmers must deal with many more variables when writing Android software than iOS software. Google's has its merits--but don't pretend it's not messy.

Android is vibrant, but it's messy, too.
Android is vibrant, but it's messy, too. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Android product diversity shows "differentiation," not fragmentation, says Eric Schmidt, Google's executive chairman.

Nonsense, I say.

"Fragmentation means the app only runs on one device and not the others. That is not happening to Android," Schmidt argued while speaking to CNET at the CES show on CNET's Next Big Thing panel.

But I think that's too binary a view. There's a lot of gray between the black and white.

Yes, Android lets mobile phone makers and tablet makers differentiate their products from rivals'. Phones with large screens and styluses, phones with slide-out keyboards, bare-bones phones with a low price tag, tablets with asymmetric processing cores, tablets with detachable keyboards, tablets for bypassing the Android Market altogether and buying stuff through Amazon's App Store. The six hardware buttons on the front of the first Android phone, T-Mobile's G1, have been whittled down to zero on the Galaxy Nexus. All this variety and more--Android for cars and cameras--is possible with Android.

That diversity in many ways is healthy. But it's foolhardy to try to deny that it's also a mess.

I don't begrudge Google for its strategy of trying to jump-start the mobile industry by giving away a competitive operating system for free. I think Android has introduced useful innovations and has kept Apple on its toes with iOS. I use Android phones and, for the most part, like them. I, however, am not a programmer who must deal with the profusion of products.

With iOS, developers must deal with devices having a handful of screen sizes, processors, and operating system versions. It's not uncommon for software to run only on devices from the last couple years or so, or on iPads but not iPhones. The combinatorics of programming for iOS, though, are vastly simpler than with Android.

Here are examples I of difficulties in the Android realm. On the Android Market, I see a constant slew of updates to bring apps up to speed with this or that new handset. I see apps that require a fast processor. Ice Cream Sandwich is finished but only is available on a single phone, and customers often are stuck with old Android versions when carriers and handset makers fail to invest the resources necessary to upgrade. At the LeWeb conference in December, I heard on several occasions about companies building mobile apps first for iOS. That's not a coincidence.

Google is striving to endow Android with abstractions that push some fragmentation issues such as different screen resolution under the covers, and perhaps that will ease the programming pains.

In the long run, perhaps the Android ecosystem will thrive and prove more vibrant than the iOS ecosystem. Monocultures are easier to manage, but having multiple players all jockeying for advantage can bring health to an industry. That's certainly Google's hope with Android.

And who knows, perhaps that outcome might indeed prove best for consumers in the long run. But Schmidt shouldn't try to paper over the chaos.

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