Android's fast release cycle could backfire

Android 2.0 is coming hot on the heels of the previous version, but will such rapid change leave customers wary of Google's mobile OS?

Remember the original "Star Wars," where the Jawas would roam the deserts of Tatooine in their Sandcrawler, rounding up whatever odd droid models they could find to sell to their human customers? It seems the market for Google Android handsets follows pretty much the same principles.

Google made the Android 2.0 SDK available for download this week, just six months after the release of the Android 1.5 SDK in April and a mere six weeks since it announced the Android 1.6 SDK update in September. That's a lot of versions for an OS that only hit 1.0 last year.

[ InfoWorld's Galen Gruman handicaps Android 2.0's chances against the iPhone and BlackBerry | See the Android 2.0 OS in action in our video preview. ]

Android developers, frustrated with OS bugs and with UI issues with the Android Market store, have been pressuring Google to bring updates to market more quickly. The Android 2.0 SDK release, in particular, is a significant milestone, not least because Android 2.0 will be the OS that powers Verizon's hotly anticipated Droid handset.

But what about the almost 50 other members of Google's Open Handset Alliance? Which versions of the OS will their phones support? And more important, where does that leave developers who want to write software for Android handsets, when they're confronted with as many options as at a Jawa swap meet?

Android's fragmented ecosystem
Android isn't the only mobile OS that's a moving target for developers. Research in Motion's BlackBerry platform, for example, has long confounded app builders by offering multiple SDK versions, most recently adding a Web-based development option.

But Android presents unique challenges. Because it's open source and backed by a consortium of handset vendors, carriers, and semiconductor companies -- rather than a single vendor, like RIM -- Android partners have broad leeway to modify the OS to suit their own ends.

Further complicating matters are the "homebrew" versions of the OS now appearing, such as Cyanogen, which add tweaks of their own while cherry-picking features from forthcoming Android versions before they are officially released.

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