Technology

Android's Spread Could Become a Problem


As more handset makers adopt Android, there's a danger of multiple versions of the operating system. Software developers may have to build several iterations of a single app

For the mobile-phone software Android, popularity may carry a high price tag. The operating system created by a Google-led consortium is being adopted by a growing number of mobile-phone manufacturers and wireless service providers.

Yet as Android is woven into more phones, developing add-on tools and games and other software-based features for it may become more difficult. "We are very careful about not splintering the code," says Eric Heiser, director of business development at Kyocera Communications, one of the manufacturers that plans to build Android into devices next year. "That's definitely a concern, that's something Google (GOOG) has been talking about every day." What's more, the widening variety of Android devices could have the unintended consequence of confusing consumers and diluting its brand appeal.

Manufacturers, carriers, and developers have grown more concerned about the prospects for Android amid news that the operating system is being adopted by a who's who of wireless players. Motorola (MOT), Samsung, Verizon Wireless, and Sprint Nextel (S) are just some of the companies that have recently become big supporters, joining the ranks of early adopters HTC and T-Mobile USA, owned by Deutsche Telekom (DT). PC giant Dell (DELL) and Sony Ericsson are working on devices based on the operating system.

Possible Splintering of Software Code

As many as 20 phones based on Android are likely to be released this year, and Gartner (IT) analyst Ken Dulaney expects to see 40 more devices in 2010. "There's a lot of horsepower behind it," he says. Android's share of the mobile operating system market is expected to skyrocket to 14.5% in early 2012 from 1.6% in the first quarter, he estimates. That would make Android the world's second-most popular mobile operating system, behind the current leader Symbian.

The more wireless service providers behind Android, the greater the likelihood of one-upmanship. Carriers and handset makers are already competing on the look and feel of their Android devices and have begun encouraging third-party developers to tailor applications to work better on their phones, and not those made by others.

A result could be so-called splintering of software code, where developers work on multiple versions of software, rather than contribute collaboratively to a single project. So if programmers want software available on more than one or two phones, they'll have to build multiple versions of it. In the past, developers who wanted to write for such systems as Java and mobile Linux had to create dozens of iterations of a single app if they wanted it adopted widely.

Google may have increased the likelihood of splintering when, on Aug. 21, it said developers can now create games, calendars, and other mobile applications for specific carriers. So an Android app for T-Mobile USA, for example, may not be available to Sprint Nextel subscribers. There's rampant but unconfirmed speculation that developers in China even used Android code to build their own version of the software that's not compatible with the main effort.

Threat of Brand Fragmentation

If carriers and handset makers try to make their Android products too unique, developers will have to tweak their apps to work on these devices, and that would make application development for all Android gadgets more expensive and time-consuming. It could reduce the appeal of Android over rivals such as Apple's (AAPL) iPhone, Research In Motion's (RIMM) BlackBerry, and the Palm (PALM) Pre.

Brand fragmentation and consumer confusion is a danger, too. Today, all Android handset makers' phones appear to have different digital menus, look different, and feature varied controls, such as touchscreens and buttons. "Everyone wants to have its own take on the Android device," says Ramon Llamas, senior research analyst at IDC. "It could potentially dilute what Android is." The carriers and handset makers have also not come up with a unified way to market these devices under the Android brand. "Each of these [players] may have a different message, and users may not see it as one thing," Dulaney says.

Android backers have tried to avoid splintering by corralling several companies into the Open Handset Alliance. "We are trying to do all we can to make sure fragmentation doesn't happen," says Google spokeswoman Katie Watson. Yet, because thousands of developers, handset makers, and carriers use and contribute to the code, Android is harder to control than rival efforts, such as the software running the iPhone.

Carriers Encouraging Tailored Apps

Developers may want to tweak their apps to run well on devices with unique controls and keys, such as the Motorola Cliq, which features a five-way navigation button. Kyocera is working on a phone that's small yet manages to give consumers an opportunity to interact with a large screen (the company won't provide details on the exact design). While apps created for the device should work on other makers' Android phones, "these apps are not as compelling if you don't put them on the right device," says Kyocera's Heiser.

Carriers are encouraging developers to tweak their wares as well. At a developer conference later this month, Sprint Nextel is likely to encourage attendees to create apps that take advantage of features of its wireless network that some other carriers don't offer, says Len Barlik, a Sprint vice-president. For instance, the carrier will tell developers they can collect information on the location of cell towers nearest to a particular phone. The feature would allow apps that depend on precise location information, such as those used for managing corporate truck fleets, to function better on Sprint's network than they would on networks of competitors that don't provide that cell-tower information to applications.

Android has a lot to gain from ending up on a range of devices with a host of applications. But its backers will have to avoid code splintering and brand dilution if they want to reap the benefits.


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