As Android grows, so do fragmentation fears

Looking back at 2009, the biggest story shaping the mobile development landscape was the emergence of Google's Android open-source operating system as a truly viable rival to Apple's iPhone. Android seemed to gain momentum with each passing month this year--during the company's third quarter earnings call in mid-October, Google CEO Eric Schmidt contended all the "necessary conditions" are now in place to galvanize the platform's global growth, with close to 20 smartphones now available worldwide and many more in the pipeline. Looking ahead at 2010, it appears Android will continue to dominate discussion, but not all of it positive: Fragmentation fears continue to escalate, and Google itself is behind the latest wave of concern, albeit indirectly. A recent post on the Android Developers Blog underscores the complexities to come: According to the Device Dashboard, a new online tool providing data about the relative number of active devices running a given version of Android, 54.2 percent of smartphones currently run Android 1.6, 27.7 percent run Android 1.5 and 14.8 percent run 2.0.1. (Android 2.0 runs on 2.9 percent of devices, and 1.1 runs on just 0.3 percent.)

That's not all. "Starting with Android 1.6, devices can have different screen densities and sizes," writes Google software engineer Raphaël Moll. "There are several devices out there that fall in this category, so make sure to adapt your application to support different screen sizes and take advantage of devices with small, low density (e.g QVGA) and normal, high density (e.g. WVGA) screens. Note that Android Market will not list your application on small screen devices unless its manifest explicitly indicates support for ‘small' screen sizes. Make sure you properly configure the emulator and test your application on different screen sizes before uploading to Market." Moll also reminds developers that all Android 2.0 devices will upgrade to 2.0.1 before the end of the year, recommending updates for applications using features specific to 2.0.

While the stated objective of Moll's post is "to provide [developers] with the tools and information to make it easy for you to target specific versions of the platform or all the versions that are deployed in volume," the Device Dashboard nevertheless paints a sobering portrait of an Android ecosystem that's splintering off in an increasing number of directions. Insiders even suggest that one of the motivating factors behind Google's rumored development of its own branded Android smartphone is to guarantee a consistent user experience across its applications. For now, developer interest in Android remains strong: According to data released by applications tracker AndroLib, Android Market added 3107 new applications in November, and 2732 new apps so far this month. But with so many new Android devices in all shapes and sizes expected in 2010, the question isn't whether the platform will grow too big for developers to ignore--it's whether it will grow too big for them to manage. -Jason

P.S. Please note FierceDeveloper will be on publishing hiatus until Tuesday, Jan. 5. Have a memorable and safe holiday season, and see you back here in 2010.