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The Android Potluck Buffet

By Richard Adhikari
Nov 19, 2010 5:00 AM PT

Saying the Android platform is fast is an understatement. Within one short year, it's erupted from claiming a mere sliver of market share to taking second spot worldwide for smartphone sales by operating system, according to Gartner's figures.

The Android Potluck Buffet

Android had 25.5 percent of the worldwide smartphone market share in the third quarter of this year, Gartner reckons. That puts it well ahead of Apple's iPhone, which took third place with 16.7 percent of market share, and not too far behind Symbian, which led the pack with 36.6 percent.

That rapid growth evoked anguished criticism from Apple CEO Steve Jobs at that company's fourth-quarter earnings call recently. The gist of Jobs' statements was that Android is fragmented, nobody knows how many Android phones are really shipped, and that there will be too many Android app stores. Oh, and open source isn't necessarily better.

To some extent, Jobs is correct. New versions of Android are being released so quickly that device makers are sometimes caught flat-footed, with the newer version of Android hitting the road shortly after they've shipped their latest, greatest device. This happened to the Droid X, for example -- it hit the shelves running Android 2.1 just weeks before Google unveiled Android 2.2. Droid X owners were able to update eventually, but it took several weeks.

Sometimes, vendors go ahead and offer devices with the outdated version of Android anyway, as happened with the Dell Streak.

This situation has annoyed users. Is it tenable, however? Are those users only a vocal minority and will Android continue attracting fans, or will the confusion result in a true problem for the Android platform?

As Google keeps on churning out new versions of the OS, will we see an even greater disparity in the market, with some users flashing devices with the latest version of the OS and others, who may perhaps be just a year into the life of their two-year contracts, running a version of the OS that's sorely outdated?

Growing Pains, or just a Pain?

"Fragmentation happens," Andrew Eisner, director of community and content at Retrevo, told LinuxInsider. "People are prepared to deal with it, and the fact that smartphones and Android devices are coming out at such a dizzying rate shows people are not expecting to have everything backward compatible and interoperable."

It's really the device makers who have the final say on what version of Android their products will run, and perhaps they're using that for brand differentiation, Ramon Llamas, a senior research analyst at IDC, suggested.

"All the vendors we've spoken to talk about how they'll have their own take on Android smartphones," Llamas told LinuxInsider. "You can see how Motorola developed MotoBlur, Sony Ericsson has its own mobile focus, and HTC has its own interface."

This fragmentation is not as much of a problem as is generally supposed, Llamas pointed out. "Fragmentation has been a problem, but mostly for gaming applications," he explained. "All other applications -- news, infotainment and others -- have been fairly standardized."

Android will settle down over time and become more unified, predicted Alex Spektor, an analyst at Strategy Analytics.

"We expect Google to slow their rate of updates as they converge on a satisfactory set of features for the Android platform," Spektor told LinuxInsider. "Because of contracts and delayed upgrades, many phones remain in consumers' hands for more than two years, so the coexistence of many different versions of Android as part of the global installed base is unavoidable."

Diff'rent Strokes

It's possible that different versions of Android smartphones will serve different sectors of the market, Al Hilwa, a program director at IDC, speculated.

"Android has become a very broad technology platform in the way it's used by hardware manufacturers," Hilwa said. "There will be some feature phone Android devices whose users aren't even expected to run a significant number of apps and will be looking for email and browsing alone. But Android will also be attractive for those who like to tinker," he added.

"The tech-savvy segment of consumers Android tries to attract will always be attracted to quick development cycles," Dmitriy Molchanov, an analyst at the Yankee Group, told LinuxInsider. "It assures them that, when they purchase an Android device, they truly are getting the latest and greatest," he added.

It's How You Finish that Counts

Overall, Android's rapid rate of development and release and its aggressive push may well leave Apple flat-footed.

"This smartphone thing could be history repeating itself, where Apple showed Microsoft the way with a GUI display and showed Microsoft how to do windows and, at that point, Microsoft took over and proceeded to eat their lunch," Retrevo's Eisner said. "If Apple's not careful, it could be showing the world the way to the smartphone and, at some point, it could get trampled."

The trampler could well be Android, once it has settled down and stabilized.

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