The news that Android’s UK share has grown to 13.2% in the second quarter of 2010 didn’t surprise industry observers, who have been watching the platform’s momentum grow with increasing intensity.
A large number of established and emerging manufacturers are now using Android – namely Sony Ericsson, HTC, Samsung, ZTE and Acer.
But fragmentation is likely to become an issue for the software platform, as manufacturers, operators, developers and consumers try to juggle the different versions.
Android is all about marketing the capability of its software. All the version upgrades have been given cake names and are already gaining a cult following – technophiles are talking about Froyo, Éclair and Cupcake.
Upgrades have been flying out thick and fast – over the past year, there have been four. In April last year, customers gained access to version 1.5, and just five months later 1.6 was rolled out. In January this year, 2.1 went live and in May, 2.2 was made available.
Manufacturers, operators, developers and consumers are affected each time Android issues an upgrade, explains Strategy Analytics director of wireless practice Neil Mawston.
‘Each of the different versions is an upgrade on a previous version, for example, 2.2 supports videos. It is important for developers which version of Android they write for, as ultimately it will affect the addressable market. Consumers are expecting certain devices and features and they might be disappointed.’
This means Android is ‘quite fragmented’, says Mawston, and that ‘creates pain for developers and pain for operators’ to deliver content to devices.
Fragmentation may have creative benefits
Fragmentation of the Android OS means that handsets operating on the platform are not necessarily running the same version.
But these frequent updates can drive competition and creativity, argues Mawston. However, despite the drive from Google to create innovation, manufacturers and operators are reluctant to offer the latest version of the software on their handsets.
Figures released by Google reveal that take-up of Android 2.2 has been relatively limited since its release in May, with only 3.3% of users accessing the latest version of the platform.
The majority of handsets are offering Android 1.6 and Android 2.1 to consumers.
However, the constant updates could put pressure on manufacturers to release new handsets more frequently than in the past.
Google acknowledges that the life of a handset is much shorter than it was previously. Speaking at a Google event in May, Google VP of engineering Andy Rubin explained some of the reasoning behind the constant developments.
He said: ‘Android as an operating system is not something that gets
marketed. Some of the press call this fragmentation, and that is probably the wrong word for this – the better word for it is legacy.
'These phones and devices are developing incredibly fast – it used to be that every 18 months there would be a new device on the market. We are now seeing a new device every three to four months. So the software obviously has to keep up and I don’t think anybody is harmed by it.’
And some manufacturers believe that updating to the latest version of Android is something to bear in mind but not the be all and end all.
Manufacturers not inclined to use the latest version
Sony Ericsson marketing director David Hilton says: ‘All the data is clearly showing there is a growth in 2.1 driven by handsets in the market.
'Our position on handsets is that they are currently on 1.6. It is really important to understand there is “vanilla” Android and then there is Android with an overlay such as Timescape and Mediascape.’
HTC, the first manufacturer to launch an Android handset in the UK, takes a similar position to its competitors.
HTC executive director of UK, Ireland and South Africa Jon French says: ‘We consider a wide range of factors when planning and designing new handsets. Ultimately, everything we do is driven by our HTC Sense [HTC’s Android overlay] design philosophy – a desire to give people a great user experience built around their needs.’
French adds: ‘Froyo [Android 2.2] has some excellent features but customers are looking for a complete package. The HTC Desire has been a tremendous seller in the UK and we have seen and heard from our customers that they are happy to purchase an HTC Desire and wait for the update, rather than wait to buy a handset shipping with Froyo.
'Our priority has to be the user experience. For some handsets, the user experience may be better using an older OS build, in which case we would not look to upgrade.’
Consumer demand may force operators to upgrade
Despite the manufacturers’ confidence in delivering services on older versions of Android, there still appears to be a demand for the latest version.
Orange recently released an update for its customers, reassuring them that the Android 2.1 upgrade would be available for the HTC Hero, a handset released in 2009 that is now viewed by some as ‘old’.
However, this proves there is a demand, as some consumers are still tied into contracts but want to upgrade to the latest software technology.
Owners of the HTC Hero want to know when the latest upgrade for their handset will be available.
One operator source explains: ‘Manufacturers bring out the update as they have the relationship with Google. We then look to customise it with our network. An upgrade is always a good thing as it gives customers new features and extra functionality.’
The fragmentation of the platform means there are several issues with Android that manufacturers are going to have to deal with. The crucial consideration for manufacturers is whether they are going to take their lead from Android or choose an independent path.