Android – a study in fragmentation?

Tue, Nov 23, 2010

Analysis, News

Last week we explained why Netflix has yet to come out with a dedicated mobile app for Android. In short, the lack of a universal DRM solution for Android requires Netflix to deal with each handset manufacturer indepentently to ensure that DRM protocol meets the requirements of Hollywood movie studios. Painting with broad strokes, we attributed the lack of a Netflix app for Android to fragmentation.

This understandably caused a fury of comments from folks claiming that fragmentation has nothing to do with anything. Commenters were quick to point out that Android’s API doesn’t support DRM and that was the real root cause behind Netflix’s inability to come out with a mobile app for Android. And while true, Netflix is skirting around the issue by dealing with each handset manufacturer separately in order to implement an appropriate and effective DRM scheme. Call us crazy, but doesn’t tweaking a mobile app on a handset by handset basis to account for god knows how many different flavors of Android (both in software and hardware) a problem rooted in fragmentation?

In any event, the entire discussion is an exercise in semantics. The bottom line is that the openness of Android (hence no DRM) isn’t always a selling point. Harping on this point, Horace Dediu writes:

If Android is to be open source, then it cannot include a DRM framework.

This leaves the problem of content protection up to the device vendors who must license schemes from various third parties.

The upshot is more fragmentation.

As John Gruber points out,

  • More and more, I’m convinced that Android isn’t a single platform. It’s a meta-platform upon which handset makers build their own platforms.

In other words, Android fragmentation seems to be not only impossible to rein in, but it may actually be by design. Google is doing nothing to stop the centrifugal force that is building up in its ecosystem. They have neither the means nor the incentives to control the spiraling.

Just this past weekend, we reported that the developers behind the popular mobile app Angry Birds apologized to some Android users for subpar performance attributed to having to account for varying Anroid handsets with inconsistent hardware.

Driving the point home, and to prevent unsuspecting Android users from throwing $0.99 down the drain, the developers listed 17 Android devices that are not officially supported by Angry Birds, including the HTC Dream, the Droid Eris, and the Motorola Backflip. Moreover, the developers caution that devices running an Android OS below version 1.6 are also not supported.

Meanwhile, we also pointed out that some big time developers like Smule are unwilling to hop on the Android bandwagon precisely because of fragmentation issues. While fragmentation may not be an extreme sticking point at the moment, the reality is that as Android continues to grow and the number of handsets continue to explode, fragmentation will become more of an issue that will inevitably leave a growing number of users frustrated and jealous of other Android owners.



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