Android's Speedy Release Cycle Has Backlash Potential

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.

I installed Android 1.6 on a Google Ion developer phone last week and found it to be a minor update on that hardware, from a user's perspective. But developers will still have to target version 1.6 specifically if they want to support the new features it makes possible on other handset models, such as higher screen resolutions and CDMA support.

Android 2.0, on the other hand, does introduce significant new user features, even on existing phones. More important, it promises to address lingering weaknesses that I hoped would be corrected in Android 1.6, such as the clunky onscreen keyboard.

But the upgrade path for older Android handsets is unclear. Rumor has it that T-Mobile's G1 hardware, in particular, may already be nearing a dead end, leaving early adopters in a lurch just one year after the carrier began shipping the first Android phones.

How Much Choice Is Too Much?

All of this leaves Android developers in a pretty pickle. On the one hand, they're working with what is arguably the most open mobile OS around. On the other, that high degree of openness means developers can never be sure which version of the OS to target if they want their apps to reach the broadest possible audience.

As I write this, handset manufacturers are reportedly readying some 18 different Android phones. Each will find a home at a different carrier, and each will try to set itself apart in some way, just as Verizon is trying to do by being first to market with Android 2.0. Proprietary add-ons such as HTC's Sense UI will mean one Android phone won't even have the same look and feel as the next.

But more important than how developers will deal with this issue, I suspect, will be how customers react to it. In the mobile world, carriers call the shots. Tech-savvy customers might be able to install Cyanogen, but most consumers will be stuck with the versions of Android that ship with their phones, plus whatever updates their carriers push over the air.

So is this to be the public face of Android? Openness, but lack of choice? An industry-standard OS, but no consistency? A product line in which handsets become obsolete every few months and the next big feature is always right around the corner?

If so, I fear Google's lauded open source OS could become the market equivalent of that old Jedi mind trick: "These aren't the droids you're looking for. Move along."

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