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Google: Android fragmentation not 'bad thing'

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OpenMobileSummit Google has defended its decision to allow unfettered Android tweaking, saying that although this may fragment the Googlephone market, it's what's best for developers.

"Everybody talks about fragmentation as a bad thing, but I think you need to look at it from the perspective of the developer," Eric Chu, Google's group manager for Android mobile platforms, told the wireless-happy OpenMobileSummit in downtown San Francisco this afternoon. "How much work does the developer have to do to address the fragmentation? If there are a million devices and they're in three fragments, they don't care."

Chu says that although HTC and Motorola have tweaked the Android UI on the Hero and Cliq devices respectively, the underlying platform remains the same. "There are clear opportunities for manufacturers and carriers to differentiate in terms of the look and feel of the UI - the look and feel of the device - while keeping the underlying platform consistent so that developers don't have to do anything different."

Chu acknowledged that manufacturers may opt for different versions of the operating system, but he then pointed out that the OS is designed for backwards compatibility. "What that means is that if you build an application for Android 1.5 and you use the published API and you don't go off the trail and start using native code you're not supposed to, your application will work on a 1.6 device or a 2.0 device."

Of course, applications coded specifically for 2.0 may not work on devices using older versions. And there's no guarantee that manufacturers won't tweak the platform in such a way that they break compatibility. "If Motorola brings an innovation to the platform, will it show up on an HTC device or a Sony Ericsson device, or will these be little pools of innovation?" Symbian Foundation marketing head Ted Shelton recently asked The Reg.

The problem, Shelton said, is that Google still lacks a governance model.

But Google's Chu doesn't see Shelton's problem. He went on to boast that the Android Marketplace filters applications so that the end user will only see devices that work on their particular device.

"Differentiation is actually a good thing. That's what the mobile industry is all about," Chu said. "The question is how we can do it in such a way that we can [limit] additional work for developers and give them the right return on investment. We're doing everything we can in the underlying platform, in the SDK, and also in the Android Marketplace to minimize that work."

As Limo Foundation executive director Morgan Gillis pointed out, at least a modicum of fragmentation is unavoidable. "You can't have differentiation without fragmentation," he explained. "But you have to realize that whatever you put out there people will innovate on top of it. But as Eric says, you have to do whatever you can to make that rational for developers."

Then he took an apparent swipe at Chu and Google: "But the governance structure that supports the platform has to be transparent and it has to commercially impartial, so that you can trust it."

Of course, not everyone likes the way Limo does things either. "Limo is what some observers have called a member source organization as opposed to an open source organization," Symbian's Shelton said. "Yeah, you can become a member, and under their membership rules you can contribute and make use of their code. But it's not completely open."

Symbian boasts that unlike Google and Limo, it's completely open. And it insists that since Symbian is already on millions upon millions of phones, it's poised to create a much larger developer community. "There's no one who has the breadth we do to be able to pull people in," Shelton said. "At this stage of the game, it's easy to see how [Symbian] will be the biggest community around an open operating system." ®

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