Year in Review 2010: Fragmentation continues to hamper Android development

While the early December release of Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android 2.3 operating system and the promise of Android 3.0 sometime in 2011 signal the ongoing evolution of the platform, the arrival of new versions is also 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, 43.4 percent of Android smartphones run the current Android 2.2, ahead of Android 2.1 at 39.6 percent--Android 1.6 powers 10.6 percent of devices, 6.3 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 in October, 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."

Earlier this month, Google vice president of engineering Andy Rubin deflected charges that Android will face mounting fragmentation issues moving forward as OEMs and operators tailor the software to their own specifications, saying he considers the trend "differentiation." Whatever you call it, it's posing real headaches for Android developers, including casual games creator Rovio Mobile, the masterminds behind the blockbuster Angry Birds, arguably the most successful smartphone franchise to date. Last month, Rovio said it will develop a lightweight Android version of Angry Birds 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 wrote 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.

Expect Android fragmentation to remain one of the major mobile industry headlines of 2011 as well as 2010, especially with so many new developers flocking to the platform. Reports indicate that in the months ahead, Google will begin decoupling some standard applications and components from the Android platform's core and make them downloadable and updatable through the Android Market storefront, meaning consumers must no longer wait for manufacturer firmware updates or operator approval when Google or its developer partners revamp their software. In addition, the breakneck pace of Android's evolution is slowing down as the platform matures, translating to fewer updates in the pipeline; once Google is comfortable with Android's core feature set, it can begin to emphasize a stable, more standardized developer environment... or so the thinking goes. This much we know: It's a problem that keeps getting bigger, and it isn't going away on its own.