Google Android's self-destruction derby begins

The dark side of the flood of new Android smartphones: versions run amok

Simply put, it's too much of a good thing. Every few days, another Google Android device is announced, as hardware makers and wireless carriers rally around the mobile operating system as the de facto smartphone platform alternative to Apple's limited-availability iPhone and RIM's limited-capability BlackBerry.

That flood of options should be a good thing -- but it's not. In fact, it's a self-destruction derby in action, as phones come out with different versions of the Android OS, with no clear upgrade strategy for either the operating system or the applications users have installed, and with inconsistent deployment of core features. In short, the Android platform is turning out not to be a platform at all, but merely a starting point for a universe of incompatible devices.

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Who wants to commit to a two-year cell contract for an Android phone when it's not clear if a better version will be out next month or if the operating system and apps you put on your Android device will be supported in the future?

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Consider what's happened since the Motorola Droid-fueled "reboot" of the Android platform in November: The Droid used Android OS 2.0, while the HTC Droid Eris used Android OS 1.5. The Motorola Droid didn't support multitouch outside of a few third-party apps. But the Droid Eris did so using HTC's proprietary Sense UI overlay but is underpowered. Meanwhile, users with first-generation Android devices (running Android 1.6 or earlier) were largely out of luck getting the current Android OS.

In 2010, the situation became even murkier. Some carriers updated earlier-version Android smartphones to the 2.1 OS -- but many did not. The 2.1 OS came with Google's Nexus One, what Google called a "superphone" meant to be a standard bearer for the Android platform. Sorry, Droid buyers -- it too lacked multitouch and didn't have a keyboard, plus Google thoroughly screwed up the product support. Next month, Nexus One's manufacturer, HTC, will ship the HTC Desire, essentially the Nexus One with multitouch added using HTC's Sense UI; anyone who bought a Nexus One must feel like a fool for adopting the alleged flagship Android smartphone.

But before HTC Droid Eris and Desire customers gloat, it's not clear what their upgrade path is for apps and the Android operating system itself. Because of the Sense UI (which really should be a standard part of the Android OS), you can't just upgrade the operating system or be sure that your apps will work -- a new OS may break Sense UI, and a new Sense UI may break your apps.

It gets worse. Later this year, Sony Ericsson plans to release its Xperia Mini series -- inexplicably based on Android OS 1.6 and using its own proprietary UI on top.

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