How Android fragmentation grounded 'Angry Birds'

Jason AnkenyThanksgiving is Thursday, but forget turkey--right now, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) is all about Gingerbread. Android 2.3--a.k.a. "Gingerbread," the latest in a growing line of dessert-themed OS update nicknames--is expected to emerge piping hot out of the kitchen any day now; earlier this month, Google strongly hinted the revamped platform is imminent, posting a Twitter photo capturing gingerbread cookies shaped to resemble the increasingly ubiquitous Android logo. Not to mention that Google CEO Eric Schmidt is now dishing on new features included in the update, announcing last week that Android 2.3 will integrate Near Field Communications technology enabling users to make retail purchases via their smartphone. Speaking at the recent Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco, Schmidt revealed some future Android devices will contain NFC chips enabling users to "bump" their phone against participating retailers' point-of-sale technology, funding purchases without cash or credit cards. Google adds it also will leverage the bump solution to enable consumers to touch Android smartphones together to share information or data. 

But the arrival of Android 2.3 is cause for trepidation among developers already struggling to keep up with the rest of the Android iterations in the wild. According to the Android Developers Dashboard, 36.2 percent of Android smartphones are running the current Android 2.2, behind Android 2.1 at 40.8 percent--Android 1.6 powers 15.0 percent of devices, 7.9 percent run Android 1.5, and 0.1 percent run obsolete OS versions. Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs sharply criticized the fractured Android landscape last month, stating "Android is very fragmented. HTC and Motorola install proprietary user interfaces to differentiate themselves. The user is left to figure it out." The challenge extends to the developer community, Jobs added. "Many Android apps work only on selected handsets, or selected Android versions. This is for handsets that shipped 12 months ago. Compare that with iPhone, where are two versions to test against--the current version and the most recent predecessor."

Few mobile developers have been more successful than casual games maker Rovio Mobile, the masterminds behind the Angry Birds franchise--in addition to selling roughly 7 million iPhone downloads, Angry Birds is now an Android title as well, generating more than 2 million downloads during its first two days of release in mid-October. But Android fragmentation is clipping Rovio's wings--last week, the firm said it will develop a lightweight Android version in response to a wave of negative consumer feedback. According to Rovio, many Android users report issues running Angry Birds on their devices, with older, lower-performance handset models plagued by severe performance issues: "With our latest update, we worked hard to bring Angry Birds to even more Android devices. Despite our efforts, we were unsuccessful in delivering optimal performance," Rovio writes on its blog, listing more than a dozen Android smartphones that the current version of the game does not support, including all units running Android 1.6 or below as well as custom ROMs. Rovio said the forthcoming lightweight Angry Birds will extend the franchise to lower-end Android devices, but stresses the new version will not offer compromised gameplay or fewer levels, only "a game experience optimized for devices with less processing power." Rovio did not announce when the new version is likely to be released.

The user comments in response to Rovio's post are no less fascinating--some blame the advertisements running in Angry Birds for the app's performance issues, while others question the firm's coding prowess. The most revealing comments originate from other developers: "Android development sounds horrible," writes one. "I'll stick with Apple on this one. I can't afford to have my small team take the time to work in the fragmentation that is Android. I would go broke." Another chimes in to say "Although we have strongly considered developing for Android, we have decided to opt out for now. Our determination is based on the fragmentation in the Android platform. Put simply, creating different versions of the same app (and then maintaining them) is too expensive. History has shown us that our resources are better spent attracting new corporate clients and innovating new products for our consumer market." Still another writes "For our company the trade off was either hiring another developer to fill in the long tail blanks on the Android platform or hire another sales rep to grow our business. It took our CEO and his staff 10 minutes to make the decision. We chose the sales rep and she is doing extremely well." Google, are you listening? -Jason