Has Android grown too big for Google to control?

Jason Ankeny

Wrap your head around this: Every third smartphone in the U.S. is now an Android device. The Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) mobile operating system powers 33 percent of all American smartphones, up from 26 percent just three months ago, according to the latest data issued by market research firm comScore--Android's continued growth comes largely at the expense of Research In Motion's (NASDAQ:RIMM) BlackBerry, which now accounts for 28.9 percent of the market, down 4.6 percentage points from November 2010. Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS remains at a virtual market share standstill, increasing only 0.2 percentage points during the survey period to 25.2 percent, while Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows Phone slipped another 1.3 percentage points to 7.7 percent. Palm's webOS brings up the rear at 2.8 percent, down from 3.9 percent three months earlier.

But Android continues suffering growing pains (which is not to be confused with watching the Kirk Cameron sitcom Growing Pains, which is an altogether different kind of suffering). Last week, Bloomberg Businessweek reported Google is assuming greater control over Android in a bid to halt ecosystem fragmentation, informing operator and manufacturer partners it must now approve all significant tweaks to the open-source platform. Executives from firms including LG, Toshiba and Samsung say Google has told them it will no longer tolerate random changes to the Android OS and will not accept Android-related partnerships forged outside of its domain. Moving forward, Google will restrict early access to Android software updates to approved partners, with VP of Engineering Andy Rubin making the final determination on which proposed partner changes earn the green light.

Google said the moves are designed to boost Android quality control, enabling the company to catch bugs early and build towards a "common denominator" user experience, according to Director of Global Android partnerships John Lagerling. "After that, the customization can begin," Lagerling explained. Sources say that in recent months, Google has demanded that Android licensees adhere to "non-fragmentation clauses" that award the company final approval over new user interface tweaks and service additions. Although Rubin said Google has always included these clauses in its Android license, Bloomberg Businessweek states that the firm has dramatically cracked down on its policies, adding that friction between Google and its Android partners has grown to the point where some companies have filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Google's choice to make Android available as an open-source platform is arguably the most decisive factor behind the operating system's staggering growth, with smartphones and tablets now available from a host of manufacturers and carriers both in the U.S. and abroad. It's also a significant draw for developers looking to break away from Apple's our-way-or-the-highway approach to ecosystem management. But it's unlikely even Google anticipated just how big Android would grow or how fast, and now the company finds itself at a crossroads: Either it clamps down on Android at the expense of the platform's open-source roots, or it adheres to open-source principles and loses all control of its creation. Both options have defenders and detractors, but it's unlikely Google can maintain the status quo for much longer.

One thing is clear: Developers agree that the Android ecosystem is a mess. A new Baird Research report finds that 24 percent of developers feel Android device fragmentation is a "huge problem" and 33 percent believe it's a "meaningful problem"--only 14 percent of respondents contend it's not a problem at all. Android developers also voice their concerns over everything from storefront discontinuity to application visibility to the volume of junk apps to revenue opportunities. That's the current state of the Android nation: Even developer concerns are fragmented. -Jason

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