Report: Android fragmentation could harm growth

IMS Research report indicates that Google needs to actively prevent more fragmentation of its Android OS or else it risks losing market share.

Google's Android operating system may be a victim of its own success.

More than 6 million handsets shipped in 2009 using Google's Android software. And the forecast in 2010 is that this figure will triple with shipments possibly topping out at 20 million this year. But a new study from IMS Research indicates that the rapid pace of Android's growth could cause more fragmentation, which could ultimately harm Android's potential as a leading smartphone operating system.

The problem is that in going from the 1.5 version of the software to 2.1, Google has released four different versions of the software, which are incompatible with each other.

Android allows users to really customize and change handsets to their liking. Similarly, developers can add to the OS and enrich the larger Android community through their own design and feature enhancements. Google

"Fragmentation is a concern first and foremost for developers," Chris Schreck, an IMS Research analyst said in a statement. "Developer resources are notoriously limited, and adding incompatible strains within platforms to the already crowded smartphone OS space makes their uphill climb even steeper."

Schreck argued that Android's overall installed base is much smaller than the installed bases of other smartphone platforms. And when the market is further segmented with different versions of the same operating system, the opportunity for developers on any particular Android strain starts to look small.

"Without Google addressing this issue, Android developers are going to find themselves working harder to reach fewer people," he said.

The study also indicated that handset vendors and mobile network operators also suffer from fragmentation since the cost of maintaining investments in an operating system increases with each variation of the platform. For example, wireless operators and handset makers have to spend extra resources translating user interfaces, customizing applications, and making sure other software that comes preloaded on devices works across the entire product portfolio.

Google is rumored to be addressing the issue.For one, Google is expected to slow down the pace of major Android updates. There is also speculation that Google will allow consumers to upgrade their devices from the Android Marketplace, so that updates don't have to go through wireless operators.

It's unclear if these changes will solve the fragmentation issue. And IMS points to another issue that Google may not be able to address. The Apache software license, which Android uses, does not require licensees to contribute modifications of the Android platform back to Google. While the open source nature of Android is great for innovation, it also means that licensees can make changes to the platform on their own, which can fragment the market even further.

Schreck pointed out that Symbian and the Limo platform, also open source operating systems, are taking a harder line when it comes to what changes it allows to be made to the software. That should help alleviate some of the possible fragmentation issues on that platform.

"I expect Android to see considerable market share gains in the immediate and near future," Schreck said. "However, to keep up that pace of growth, particularly in the high end market, Google absolutely has to manage fragmentation."

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