Google Android's self-destruction derby begins

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

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This mess leaves developers and users in an unstable position, as each new Android device adds another variation and compatibility question. Compare this self-demolishing behavior with Apple's iPhone strategy and Palm's WebOS strategy: a few models each year, with the same operating system applied to all of them and made available for previous models immediately. Both users and developers know that they can count on high, predictable levels of consistency on these platforms. Even Microsoft has realized this: After years of letting Windows Mobile be customized into a mess of incompatible versions, its forthcoming Windows Phone 7 operating system follows the same strategy as Apple and Palm. Even RIM, who for several years had multiple versions of its BlackBerry operating system floating about, has largely developed one-OS-for-all devices. (Other device capabilities remain less consistent.)

You might think that Apple, Palm, and RIM have it easier than Google in enforcing platform consistency, since they all make their own devices. By contrast, the Android environment is open source, with every device maker free to do what it wants. That's a policy problem, not a technical one. As Microsoft seems to have learned with Windows Phone 7, you can enforce a consistent, predictable platform even if you don't make the hardware. Oh wait, that's how the PC industry works -- so it's not so novel a concept.

A couple months ago, I wrote that Google's naive approach to open sourcing Android would result in a free-for-all that confused users and developers. I urged it to treat Android as a managed platform, where users and developers could buy devices and code for them without fear they were on a dead-end fork. The Nexus One at first seemed to be that attempt -- obviously not.

That's too bad, since it leaves Android users in a precarious position that will likely cause a market rebellion. I can understand Google's open source impulse to adopt an approach more like that of desktop Linux in which the community can experiment freely. Of course, desktop Linux is an asterisk in terms of actual adoption. But even its approach is not as bad as Android's; at least with desktop Linux PCs, your PC is not tied to a specific variation of Linux or to Linux at all. Users can at least retain their hardware investment and install a different operating system if they chose a fork that goes nowhere. But there's no such do-over option on smartphones.

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This article, "Google Android's self-destruction derby begins," originally appeared at Read more of Galen Gruman et al.'s Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments on mobile computing at


Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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