Android: On Fragmentation and obsolescence

May 24, 2010: 5:39 PM ET

The rate of innovation on Android devices is so great that many buyers may feel alienated.

Google's Android platform is morphing at an amazing rate.  So fast, in fact, that consumers may be hesitant to jump on board for fear that a new, better device may be right around the corner.

Another concern: Will the device you bought be able to handle the firmware updates that come out toward the end of your contract?  Google has (GOOG) just released another iteration of their OS called Froyo and it has already been made clear that some early Android devices won't be able to make the leap and enjoy the features of this new OS.

Android isn't alone in this.  Apple's (AAPL) original iPhone won't be able to receive the iPhone 4.0 update.  In fact, an iPhone 3G, which you can still currently buy, won't be able to take advantage of some 4.0 features like multi-tasking.

On phone hardware, there is always a new, better device around the corner.  That is just how the technology world works.  But unlike iPhone, which only sees upgrades in the Summer, Android devices get upgraded all year long, almost every month in fact.  There are many OEM providers including Sony (SNE), HTC and Motorola (MOT) constantly battling each other to come out with the most impressive phone.

And the rate of innovation shows now sign of slowing down.  I have the Sprint HTC EVO 4G, the best smartphone you'll be able to buy in two weeks (and it is amazing).  But just yesterday I find out that Motorola might be releasing a newer (better?) phone on Verizon later this summer.  And there are rumors of a Droid 2.  And Dell's next Android device has a five inch screen!  Ugh.

Add  fragmentation to the headaches.
Android devices come in all shapes and sizes.  Some applications are designed for a smaller screen while others take advantage of Android's latest high resolution screens.  The solution here is easy.   Bigger/higher resolution is usually better unless portability is the highest priority.

Software too
It isn't just hardware that is evolving at breakneck speeds.  The Android OS is getting upgraded all of the time.  In a recent interview, Andy Rubin, head of the Android platform, said:

This is how it has always been and that's why I made the distinction of legacy. We have legacy and if somebody wants to use a feature that's in the new OS, they really can't run that app on an older OS. So it's just things are happening so quickly that it becomes really obvious that we went from 2.0 to 2.2 in a very short time frame. I think that will slow down a little bit. I'm actually advocating coming out with releases around the buying seasons, May and September, October.

That means that, technically, the Android device you buy now may not be upgradable to the latest firmware at the end of your contract.  You may have to buy another handset before your contract is up to do that -- something that might not sit well.  Just remember that you are buying a phone for the here and now.

What to do?
There are ways to help minimize these issues.  First of all, the cost of a phone that you buy with a plan pales in comparison to monthly costs.  The best Android phone you can buy right now costs $200.  Most Smartphone plans run about $100/month with voice, SMS and data.   Therefore your phone costs less than a twelfth of the total cost of your coverage throughout your contract!

Therefore it makes no sense to skimp on the smartphone.  Buy the absolute best phone/most recently released available.  If you want to save money, try to get a better deal on your plan by either eliminating extras like SMS (everyone will soon have email on their phones), cutting your voice minutes or going to T-Mobile or Sprint (S) who offer cheaper plans than AT&T (T) and Verizon (VZ).

That means that you're likely to want to get a Nexus One on T-Mobile or Incredible on Verizon and a EVO 4G on Sprint.   These devices will still be impressive in a year and are the most likely to still be accepting Android updates at the end of your two year contract. If you are looking for a hardware keyboard, the Verizon Droid is still a very powerful phone which is promised to get the upcoming Froyo 2.2 update (and you can find it for $20.)

AT&T (T) might soon have an impressive Dell offering, but at the moment they only carry an Android 1.6 Motorola Backflip which is outdated the second you buy it.  You can spend $500 on a Nexus One designed for AT&T's network but AT&T suspiciously won't subsidize it.

Innovation is a blessing, not a curse
The impressive rate of innovation is an advantage to Android owners.  If you are looking for an iPhone or Palm Pre right now, you are going to be getting largely the same device that was available last summer.  That's no fun.

With Android, you have some of the best hardware vendors in the world competing vigorously for your money.  HTC and Motorola continue to leapfrog each other every few months with new models with insane specs.  Google is innovating at such breakneck speeds that hardware just two years old may not be able to handle some of the new features.  That's not to say that the phone you buy now won't be able to do the things you bought it to do in two years.

Innovation is a good thing.

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About This Author
Seth Weintraub
Seth Weintraub

Google went from searching the Web to worming its way into nearly every facet of business and government. Seth Weintraub unveils where the company is going, who it's competing with, who it's about to compete with and how market forces push the company to veer or adhere to its Don't Be Evil motto. For 15 years, Weintraub was a global IT director for a number of companies before becoming a blogger.

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