Fragmentation is becoming the biggest buzz-word of 2012. So much so that it’s actually ‘the new black’. The problem is that it spreads and multiplies like a virus and Android is infected beyond the help of any antibiotic causing a permanent disconnect between Google and the OS.
Charlie Kindel has more than a few thoughts on the subject, and he is the kind of guy you should pay a little attention to. After recently leaving a 21-year post as a senior executive at Microsoft, including 2 years in charge of the Windows Phone developer platform, Kindel has earned the right to an opinion on players in the mobile game.
The good news for Android is that fragmentation is not a death sentence. At least not necessarily. In a recent blog post, Kindel waxed poetic with a few “rants, raves, and random thoughts” on the subject.
Kindel: “Google has lost control of Android due to fragmentation.”
There is no discounting the success Android has realized with installations on a large variety of smartphone and tablet devices. The diversity and extensibility of the Android operating system is clearly seen in the variety of manufacturers employing it to use on their various hardware configurations and form factors. It it this buffet of options combined with a host of Android versions (Honeycomb, Gingerbread and Ice Cream Sandwich) and variations (custom interfaces from nearly every vendor and customizations for devices such as Amazon’s Kindle Fire) that is bringing about this need to identify Android as entirely fragmented.
Kindel: “Fragmentation will cause Android to continue to grow.”
Android is truly evolving like a living organism and continues to grow and change despite, as well as in-spite, of Google. While Android takes on a life of it’s own, Google will find itself with less and less influence over it.
Kendel: “Google, on the other hand, gave device manufacturers exactly what they wanted with Android: Extreme flexibility and an open source license. That model is like crack cocaine for the likes of Samsung and HTC. They have had years to get addicted to it and, from their perspective (selling boatloads of devices) it’s working just dandy for them.”
As Android becomes more and more diverse, there are risks that the user interfaces will become so different that the user experience will become unrecognizable from one device to the next. This same diversity also presents real problems for developers trying to create apps as it becomes very difficult to test and deploy something stable and consistent across all of the permutations created by manufacturers with artistic license to customize their own brand of Android.
This might be a good thing for manufacturers like Amazon who have the freedom to develop and upgrade Android as they see fit to support their devices as well as the marketplace with which to sell and distribute apps. This might even be seen as a good thing for developers who will have the chance to specialize (creating Android-flavor and hardware specific apps). The real losers in this game are the consumers. With everything wearing the Android-brand label it becomes very difficult for those people to know exactly what they are buying and what they should expect. I would be willing to wager, as an example, that a good number of the new Kindle Fire owners didn’t understand that their device runs a customized version of Android and is not compatible with all available Android apps.
Kindel: “But regardless of how virtuous the virtuous cycles within the mobile ecosystem are, it is clear each side of the ecosystem [Developers, Users, Carriers, Device Manufacturers, and OS Providers] is impacted differently by each fragmentation axis. In some cases, some combinations of fragmentation/market side are actually positive (one could use the word “diversity” instead of fragmentation in these cases). In many other cases fragmentation is bad. Bad with a capital B. In still other cases fragmentation can be a double-edged sword for a player on one side of the market.”
There is positive potential with fragmentation because diversity of options means power in the hands of consumers to be able to choose the configurations (screen size, keyboard type, accessory availability, speed, etc.) that best suit their needs.
The difficulty for Google will be to find a role in all of this when they really don’t have a solid fit in any of the ecosystem categories (fitting best in developers, but even still that may not have meaning with a flavor of Android they had no role in creating). They play a supporting role in all of the relevant hardware out there for Android to run on and without meaningful control over the development of the operating system. This reality makes Google largely redundant.
Kindel: “Repeat after me: Android is not Google and Google is not Android.”
Given that reality, the big question becomes how Google turns Android into a long-term revenue stream? Ideally Google takes ownership of mobile search and all of the profits that can bring as a result. I thought for a while that Google would turn Motorola into an Android flagship of sorts but that doesn’t seem to be the case and it’s probably too late to start now. Google has never been known for hardware really and it is usually wise to avoid straying away from core competencies.
So what does Google know best? Storing information in a meaningful way and marketing. This cheerleader role may be exactly what suits them best, maintaining brand strength with minimal investment.