Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Don't Frag that Android, Bro!

Jason Lackey

Remember the “Don’t taze me, bro!” internet meme? If not, here’s a quick refresher with a pretty cool rap followup here. Anyway, with Android, the threat isn’t tazers, instead it is fragmentation.

The mobile phone market, at least according to conventional wisdom around the water cooler here at InnoPath, is consolidating into one where there will be increasingly fast, cool and capable high end smartphones on the high end and the typical array of cheap and cheerful jugaad phones for those who just want to make calls and not much left between. In some ways this is good news. Economies of scale require a certain critical density, something which too many players can dilute.

That however, means that the remaining players are going to be in sharper competition. The way the landscape is looking right now, the biggest contenders for the crown are going to be Apple and Android. Apple and Android, much like fighters in the good ol’ days of the UFC (the UFC, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, is largely responsible for the rise of MMA over boxing and, at least in its infancy, featured fighters with radically different styles. Those days are over, though, with the sport having converged around a mix of kick boxing, wrestling and jiu jitsu. Vive la difference), will fight in radically different ways.

Apple, the superheavyweight champion of the tightly closed and controlled ecosystem, is the epitome of how well benevolent dictatorships can work. The combined economy of scales presented by all the various iPhone models combined with the various iPod Touches brought into focus by the existence of a single AppStore have combined to show the world exactly how good the mobile experience can be when a fanatical tyrant makes the trains run on time. Screen sizes are the same, device capabilities are largely the same and apps written for one iPhone or iPod Touch will, for the most part, run exactly the same way on other iPhones or iPods.

Android, the unconventional freeware contended, didn’t go to the same plush private school in Cupertino that Apple did. Nope, Android went to the school of hard knocks and is working its way up from the streets on a ragtag collection of semi-random hardware from a variety of makers including a rising star from Taiwan, a fallen hero from Chicago, some ambitious younger chargers from Korea and some others including Europe’s great white hope and a veritable rogues gallery of Chinese attracted by the sound of free.

This is good news in that the sheer volume of handsets that these various contenders will crank out will by itself help the platform reach critical mass. However, the dazzling variety of the bunch, be it a ragtag fleet or rainbow coalition, is as much a hindrance as it is a multicolored blessing.

While the numbers help build the critical mass the platform needs, they also break it down as too many things are different and there is too much variety. Fragmentation is the enemy and it is this fragmentation from within that seems more likely than anything from outside to undo the mighty Android.

Already in the field we have 1.5, 1.6 and a couple versions of 2.0, including very shortly 2.1. Quite a few versions of a very young OS to be floating around. Screen sizes also vary, with 320x240 (QVGA) on the small side on the HTC Tattoo (and others) on up to monsters like the 854x480 of the Motorola Droid/Milestone or the upcoming Sony Ericsson Xperia X10. Some have Exchange/ActiveSync support native, others don’t.

Other hardware spec also vary widely, from the relatively underpowered HTC G1 with the ubiquitous Qualcomm MSM 7201a at 525 MHz with 192 MB of RAM on up to beastly machines with 1GHz Snapdragon and 512 MB RAM. For some things, this will not matter (much), but even with UI scaling and other tricks, it is impossible to give exactly the same experience with phones that are fundamentally so different in terms of capabilities. The same app that will seem laggy and weak on the G1 could well scream on a Snapdragon. A screen layout perfect on the Droid will likely be considerably less so on an HTC Tattoo. Geolocation APIs that work on Éclair may not work on Cupcake.

Games are a particular concern. One reason for this is that, for performance reasons, games may not use all the UI bells and whistles included with the OS, but instead may be built using a custom UI. Additionally, even if the software works perfectly, the different screen sizes have different aspect ratios, making it awkward at best to deliver the exact same experience across all devices. On top of that, there are issues with frame rates – how do you get roughly the same game play on two devices when one is much more powerful than the other? Greater detail? Move more pixels?

But wait, there’s more! One of the biggest (and IMHO, most unfortunate) trends in mobile is that of the bung-on UI. Take something that may be ugly but is at least reasonably fast, and then bung on something on top of it which may be even uglier and you present the user with the triple play of slower, less attractive and less compatible. On Android, there are at least some choices, some of which aren’t so bad. HTC’s Sense, for example. Looks like, runs reasonably well. Moto Blur? Horrible name, nothing like naming your GUI after a visual defect, but all reports are that it is pretty good. Samsung TouchWiz? A touch too clever for its own good. However, in order for any of them to be worthwhile, they really need to be not just as good or slightly better than the stock UI, they need to blow it out of the water otherwise the benefits don’t outweigh the drawbacks of a lack of standardization.

So, the battle is looking like a classic Hollywood WWII propaganda movie, with the stereotypical mixed bag team with an Italian, a Latino, a Jew and a bookish WASP representing Android taking on the Aryan Supermen of Apple with better training, better troops and better equipment in a battle of guts and determination against a precision, scientific war machine. Can the scrappy mutts prevail? Hard to say, but they certainly have their work cut out for them if they are going to take this hill, much less survive. Regardless of which side you are rooting for, this one is going to be interesting. Dim the lights, grab that popcorn and sit back and watch the mortars fly.

Will the Googleplex realize that in the worlds of Steve Balmer that what really matters “Developers Developers Developers”? Will Andy Rubin et al realize that when already fighting an uphill battle? A smaller appstore lacking a pre-existing billing relationship with customers will have a harder time selling software. Sure, free downloads are fun, but if you want your developer community to be able to write software for your platform as a day job and not a hobby then they are going to have to be able to make some money at it. Top things off with a fragmented platform that means that every app has to be first written and then retweaked for each big new phone (a casual count of the number of updates to downloaded apps in the Android Shop immediately after the introduction of the Droid should tell you something…) and it should be clear that all is not milk and honey in Android land. This is not to say that the situation is hopeless or unsalvageable, because it is not and relative to stalled platforms like Windows Mobile, they are in a strong position. And to be honest, relative to folks like Nokia, with S40, several different flavors of S60 and Maemo to worry about, Android presents a unified, homogeneous front. Sure, you hear noise about some shortcomings and frustrations with Android, but the Palm folks would kill to have half the mindshare and God only knows what the Bada folks would do for even a quarter, and let’s not forget people constantly complain about The App Store. Nothing’s perfect.

But whatever you do, don’t frag that Android, bro.

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