Is Android fragmented? Google argues otherwise

Jason Ankenyeditor's corner

Android is not fragmented--it's differentiated. Or at least that's the opinion of Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) executive chairman Eric Schmidt. "Differentiation is positive, fragmentation is negative," Schmidt said during the Next Big Thing SuperSession at last week's Consumer Electronics Show, reports. "Differentiation means that you have a choice and the people who are making the phones [are] going to compete on their view of innovation, and they're going to try and convince you that theirs is better than somebody else." Fragmentation, on the other hand, means that you have an app and it runs on one device but not the other, Schmidt added.

Whatever adjective you choose to define the Android landscape, it's definitely no model of consistency. The Android Developers Platform Versions page indicates that the new Android 4.0--which delivers the tablet-optimized innovations introduced in version 3.0 to all devices in an effort to streamline the platform--currently powers just 0.6 percent of Android products; 55.5 percent run a version of Android 2.3, followed by Android 2.2 at 30.4 percent. That's a headache for developers, but Schmidt insists that "what people really care about is if there's an interoperable ecosystem of apps... We absolutely allow [manufacturers] to add or change the user interface as long as they don't break the apps. We see this as a plus; [it] gives you far more choices."

While Google waits for manufacturers and operators to catch up to Android 4.0, it's taking steps to forge a more consistent and user-friendly experience by launching a new web-based Android Design portal offering developers insight into creating more stylish and sophisticated applications. Android Design encourages developers to create apps with an emphasis on aesthetics (e.g., faster transitions, crisp layout and stylish icons), intuitive interfaces and more empowering user experiences. The site spans multiple style and pattern components developed to foster more visually compelling and consistent apps that look and run the same across different Android devices. Android Design also features basic software building blocks, promising an inventory of ready-to-use elements essential for superior app experiences.

The Android Design portal represents Google's latest salvo against the perception that Android apps are significantly clunkier and less visually appealing than their counterparts on Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS. Google recently announced that inclusion of its unmodified Holo theme family is a compatibility requirement for all devices running Android 4.0 and forward, a move designed to ensure a more consistent user interface and application development environment. Writing on the Android Developers Blog, Google Android Framework engineer Adam Powell explained that Holo guarantees developers building new and forthcoming Android applications can rest assured that the app's look and feel will remain consistent on devices with a custom skin.

"For developers, new system themes mean more design targets for their apps," Powell explains. "Using system themes means developers can take advantage of a user's existing expectations and it can save a lot of production time, but only if an app designer can reliably predict the results. Before Android 4.0 the variance in system themes from device to device could make it difficult to design an app with a single predictable look and feel." No matter whether you call it "fragmentation," "differentation" or something unprintable in this publication, 2012 is shaping up as the year Google does something about it.--Jason