Technologizer

Android’s Fragmentation Mess–and How to Fix It

The next version of Google's mobile operating system looks impressive. But it may not be coming to an Android phone near you any time soon.

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Here’s my unsolicited advice to Google and its partners:

  • Acknowledge that fragmentation is bad. When Google representatives have addressed the fractured nature of the Android market, they’ve sometimes denied that there’s any reason for concern and blamed any controversy on (ahem) rabble-rousing pundits. More recently, the company has said that it’s working with manufacturers to ensure that reasonably current phones receive updates. But I’d still like to see everyone involved make clear that they want new versions of Android to roll out more quickly and widely than they do today, and to explain how they’ll make it happen.
  • More at a slightly more leisurely pace.Google has typically released multiple new versions of Android a year. (The most recent one this year, 3.0 Honeycomb, ran only on tablets, not phones.) It’s painfully obvious that hardware companies can’t keep up with this rate of change.
  • Lay off on the custom interfaces. Device makers like to futz around with Android, slathering on their own layer of tweaks–such as Samsung’s TouchWiz–that usually make things different but not radically better. These changes have the potential to delay upgrades, since manufacturers have to rejigger them to work with new versions of the operating system. They’re just not worth it.
  • Aim more phones at folks who care about this stuff. Some fragmentation denialists argue that normal people don’t know or care what software is on their phones, and it’s therefore no biggie if they don’t have the newest version of Android. That’s certainly true of some normal people. Maybe even a majority. But a few phones–such as the Galaxy Nexus–already target more discerning consumers. Google calls them “Pure Google” devices, and they run unadulterated Android and get fast-track access to operating-system updates. This approach seems to work. So why not simply ramp up the percentage of Android phones that offer Pure Google?

Ice Cream Sandwich is bursting with promise. It’s the first Android update that looks like it has a shot at narrowing the daunting lead that Apple maintains over Google in terms of usability and general good taste. Here’s hoping that Google, hardware makers and wireless carriers do everything in their power to get it to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible–because it doesn’t really matter how impressive a piece of software is if you can’t get your hands on it.

(PHOTOS: History of the Cell Phone)

McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist; on Twitter, he’s @harrymccracken. His column, also called Technologizer, appears every Thursday on TIME.com.

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