A small change regarding the look and feel of Ice Cream Sandwich apps could help Google fight Android fragmentation.
Starting with Android 4.0, support for the "Holo" theme will be mandatory for phones and tablets that have the Android Market installed. Holo is the stock Android theme, known for its sharp angles, thin lines and blue hue. Third-party developers can now create apps and widgets using the default Android aesthetic, knowing that's how it'll look on every major Ice Cream Sandwich device that has the Android Market.
To be clear, this doesn't mean the death of phone makers' user interface customizations, such as HTC's Sense or Samsung's TouchWiz. Far from it: Google is also making it easier for developers to accommodate these custom interfaces, with a bit of code that adopts whatever theme the device is using by default. Essentially, app developers will be able to choose whether their apps will look more like stock Android 4.0, or like the phone maker's customized interface.
It is this choice that could improve the woeful software update situation for Android phones and tablets. If more developers skin their apps to look like stock Android instead of some custom user interface -- and why wouldn't they? -- phone makers won't have to worry as much about how third-party apps will look when their devices are updated. The result, hopefully, will be speedier delivery of future Android updates.
Still, a blog post by Google's Tim Bray announcing the changes illustrates the trouble Google faces in fighting fragmentation. As in this case, Google can use Android Market access as a bargaining chip with device makers and wireless carriers, but Google also has to keep these parties happy by letting them futz with the stock Android experience. As we've seen with Android phones that use Bing instead of Google search, phone makers and wireless carriers have bargaining chips of their own.
But even specific baby steps are better than the vague promises Google has previously made to reduce fragmentation. Hopefully the next Android update will come a little faster to Ice Cream Sandwich phones and tablets thanks to mandatory Holo support.