There’s a lot of talk about Android fragmentation. Google decided to restrict access to the Honeycomb (Android 3.0) source code thus adding fuel to the discussion. Is fragmentation really a problem or could it actually benefit Google?
What is fragmentation?
Software fragmentation occurs when multiple parties take software source code, customize it as they like, release products using it, and take advantage of the underlying brand name.
In the case of Android, phone and tablet manufacturers take the Android source, change it, remove parts, add components, build devices around the customized source and market the devices as “Android”. Now we have a classic good news / bad news situation.
Good News: Having many parties working with the Android code and donating changes and additions back to the code base makes Android better at a faster pace. It also creates multiple distribution paths for the software.
Bad News: Fragmentation. Confusion. Consumers see many “Android” devices but they differ in significant ways. Some Android apps don’t run on some Android devices. Some of the devices are slick and appealing while others are drab and frustrating.
I hope you can readily see that fragmentation leads to consumer confusion that will hurt the Android brand. This is why Google has chosen to restrict access to Honeycomb. They are trying to avoid the problems that occurred when manufacturers built tables using Android 2.2 despite Google’s advisory that they should not.
Open Source Is a Double-Edged Sword
Welcome to the wild world of open source. Google cannot prevent anyone from taking open source Android components and building any kind of device they want. However, all is not lost. Google has a couple of options.
- Google can restrict use of the “Android” trademark. Anyone can build a device using Android’s open-source code but they cannot use the term Android in their marketing without Google approval. To date, Google has been lax in controlling use of the Android name. I think they have been more interested in building brand awareness than exercising control. The brand is now well-established. The game has changed.
- A common practice in open-source applications is to have two code bases. One is completely open source and available for anyone to use. The other consists of the open-source base plus additional proprietary components. By holding back some critical elements of Android, Google gains leverage with anyone wanting to build an Android device. They would have to agree to licensing terms to gain access to the proprietary parts.
We could devise variations of these themes. The important point is that fragmentation can be bad and Google is justified in taking steps to manage the Android user experience. What’s your opinion?