Google's Android OS is a mobile force to be reckoned with. Android smartphones have quickly risen to the top of the food chain, and Android tablets are emerging as a solid rival for Apple's iPad tablet. The "open" nature of the Android OS has contributed to its success, but the lack of control over the Android ecosystem as a whole creates a confusing landscape for app developers and could ultimately hinder the platform.
An Appcelerator survey from January found that 88 percent of app developers surveyed believe that Android is the most open mobile platform, and that 76 percent feel that Android is "best positioned to power a large number of connected devices in the future". Nearly two-thirds of the survey respondents named Android the mobile platform with the best long-term outlook. Increasingly, though, the question is "which Android?"
The popularity of Android makes it a potentially lucrative market for app developers. The problem, though, for Android app developers is answering the question of which Android they're developing for: Smartphone Android or tablet Android? Which version of Android? Will the app be optimized to work with the diverse hardware running the chosen flavor of Android? Which app store will the app be distributed through?
Al Hilwa, an IDC analyst, agrees that the fragmentation of the Android platform is becoming an issue. The diverse hardware and software options available add complexity for design and testing of apps, making it more difficult to produce a single app that works across the Android ecosystem. Hilwa believes that an even bigger concern is that developers will cater to the lowest common denominator rather than investing the effort to optimize an app to take advantage of different hardware scenarios--degrading the overall experience and failing to reach the potential Android is capable of.
Hilwa says, "This is not something that cannot be fixed, but like steering an oil-tanker, it may will take a persistent steady hand on the issue by Google to turn the situation around."
Scott Schwarzhoff, VP of marketing at Appcelerator, points out that there are multiple layers of fragmentation for app developers in general. A developer has to contend with fragmentation at the OS level--Android vs. iOS vs. Windows Phone 7, plus the further fragmentation of different versions of Android depending on the hardware platform and manufacturer, at the programming skills level--Java vs. Objective-C, at the device level--smartphone vs. tablet, and at the distribution level--Apple App Store vs. Android Market and the diverse collection of alternative Android app stores.
Schwarzhoff explains, "So the risk profile for mobile development against this backdrop is extremely high if a developer doesn't consider how to better organize/leverage their teams and build an integrated mobile architecture that can scale to meet the fragmentation issues above."
Google has already more or less admitted that "open" is more a marketing buzz term than a culture for Android. It is "open" compared to Apple's iOS, but not open in the true sense of an open source project that is open to the developing public. Google still controls the source code, and Google decides when to release new versions.
What Google also needs to do, though, is to work more closely with Android vendors to establish some baseline minimum hardware requirements for devices, and push for more consistency in releasing Android OS updates for devices so that Android app developers don't have to contend with such a confusing array of options.