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Android set for score of handsets, but risks fragmentation

Google watches carefully over its creation's early steps

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The second Android Developer Challenge (ADC2) was announced at the developer conference - entries for ADC2, using the current Android version, 1.5 or Cupcake, will compete for three top prizes in each of 10 app categories. There will also be an additional cash prize for the top three programs across all categories. The 'best in show' pot is $250,000, with $150,000 and $125,000 for the overall second and third placed products. The top place in each category gets $100,000. The Idol twist is an element of consumer participation.

Anyone with a Cupcake device – which currently means a Vodafone/HTC Magic, though Samsung and HTC/T-Mobile are close behind – can download and rate any of the competing apps in two rounds of judging, says CNET. Users' votes will account for 45% of the grand total and the Google-selected judges' panel for the rest.

Fragmentation risk

Google is trying to strike a difficult balance between the potential anarchy of a truly open source environment, and the closed platform of Windows or Apple. It is putting itself in clear control of the Android agenda, while encouraging its own and third party developers to pursue their own projects, and open sourcing all the results.

Although some open source purists complain at the level of control the search giant exerts, and its sometimes poor communication with developers, it knows that an over-open approach could lead to fragmentation, the problem that has held back both Java and Linux on mobile devices.

Rubin acknowledged the danger of losing the advantage of a unified developer platform with the resulting huge target market for apps, as IMS Research analyst Chris Schreck highlighted the issue in a research note. Schreck says fragmentation resulting from the proliferation of devices will become a problem for the whole Android ecosystem, including developers, mobile operators and manufacturers – in fact, anyone developing custom user interfaces or proprietary software for the open source platform.

This will be a key feature of the platform, since operators and vendors want to differentiate and brand themselves with their own user experience, and see Android as a flexible platform to support this. The Open Handset Alliance, the alliance of companies supporting Android, will license one particular form of Android to each OEM or cellco, which in turn will split into multiple incompatible strains on the platform itself, Schreck said. That would increase support costs, reduce economies of scale and force developers to tweak apps for different variants.

“The idea of open source is to spread the cost of platform maintenance and evolution across the entire open source community and all the participants in the OHA, rather than having specific OEMS and MNOs having to bear the cost of making their own version of the platform entirely themselves,” Schreck told Telephony.

Other open source OSs like Symbian and LiMo have license conditions that require any changes to the code to be contributed back to the managing group, though this can slow down development and some companies will be unwilling to share their intellectual property. Rubin indicated that it was in the interests of operators and vendors to ensure fragmentation did not occur, though the creation of Android-based platforms by the likes of China Mobile suggests it may have to take a harder line in future.

Copyright © 2009, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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