Mobile // Mobile Devices
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8/8/2012
10:48 PM
Larry Seltzer
Larry Seltzer
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Android A Fragmented Mess, But Apple Lawsuit Could Help

Android's version fragmentation problem is nothing new. Adding to the mess are all the stupid skins handset makers put on Android to differentiate themselves: Samsung's TouchWiz, HTC's Sense, and Motorola's MotoBLUR. What's the point? They all stink. So it might be a good thing for TouchWiz to be found infringing.

All my research indicates that IT doesn't trust Android, at least not as much as it trusts Apple's iOS on iPhones and iPads. Why? Two reasons: lack of security and fragmentation. The security problem comes mostly from Google and its OEMs not exercising the kind of energetic scrutiny of apps that Apple does with its app store. Fragmentation could be an even bigger problem in the eyes of IT because it's so hard to get your arms around it. If Apple were to win its lawsuit against Samsung, at least some of the fragmentation problem might go away. Allow me to explain.

Android has fragmented in many directions. The biggest fragmentation problem, all things considered, is the proliferation of versions. Android is now up to version 4.1, code-named Jelly Bean, but we know from Google's own stats, based on access to Google Play, that as of Aug. 1, 84% of users are running version 2.3.7, a.k.a. Gingerbread, or earlier. By comparison, in his WWDC keynote a few months ago, Tim Cook proudly pointed out that over 80% of iOS users are running version 5. "Now if you compare that to our competition..." and he trailed off to applause.

The main culprit here are the carriers--AT&T, Verizon, and others--who bear primary responsibility for updating their users and who, as a general rule, shirk that responsibility. Apple, on the other hand, controls the OS upgrade process, including the upgrade process for apps, because all that goes through Apple's store. Google has no such control.

Google surrenders other important characteristics of the OS to its partners that Apple retains. All the major handset makers add a "skin" to Android; it is what we used to call a "shell" on PCs, a modified user interface. All these companies would maintain that their program--TouchWiz from Samsung, Sense from HTC, and MotoBLUR from Motorola--improve the device. I'll be generous and say maybe they do, maybe they don't; the point is that they make some Android phones different from others.

These and other modifications that carriers and handset makers make result in a large matrix of possible Android configurations for developers and IT to deal with.

I believe the problems from all the shells and versions for developers are actually minor compared to the problems for IT. Among the problems:

  • Support. When you have to explain how to do something to a user, you might have several different ways to do it. Some might work better than others.
  • Management/security. Device management is limited and complicated by the differences in device configuration and there are no clear standards for it. There is one emerging in the form of Samsung's SAFE (Samsung Approved For Enterprise), which is basically a framework for security products. Much as Apple exposes one set of APIs for mobile device management (MDM), SAFE exposes APIs as well. Security products, including VPNs, need only write to the SAFE rules instead of having to account for every Android distribution. So this is actually emerging good news, but no thanks to Google.

In Apple's suit against Samsung for patent infringement, the real focus of the confusing similarities that Apple alleges is TouchWiz, Samsung's skin. Imagine if Samsung were forced to revert to a plain, vanilla Android interface. I have to think that this would be a net positive for users, IT, and developers, and I don't really understand Samsung's interest in screwing with the interface.

Big hat tip to Nick DuVarney on DroidDog, who first wrote on the patent suit angle and inspired most of this commentary.

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