Google I/O Google Android project leader Andy Rubin isn't concerned about the fragmentation of the Android handset market. In fact, he doesn't even call it fragmentation.
Google's primary aim to ship new and improved Android devices as quickly as possible, and a natural by-product of this, Rubin says, is that the market will span myriad versions of the company's open source OS.
"Some of the press has called it fragmentation, but that's probably the wrong word for it," he told reporters last week at Google I/O, the company annual developer conference. "The better word for it is 'legacy.' With these phones and devices, the iteration cycle is incredibly fast. It used to be that every 18 months, a new device would reach the market. But we're seeing it happen every three or four months. The software obviously has to keep up and I don't think anyone is harmed by it.
"I think everybody wants this rapid iteration."
Google's Android setup does mean that some applications won't run on devices released just a few months before, Rubin says, but the Android marketplace will hide incompatible apps from the end user. "The marketplace — the store by which applications are distributed — does a really good job of pairing up the device capabilities that the user has with what's available for the device, so it's not like they'll see multiple versions of an application for the device."
In other words, they won't see what they're missing.
This may be slightly frustrating for someone who feels like they only just bought their phone, but it's a bigger issue for third party developers working to reach as large an audience as possible. As Google open source guru Chris DiBona put it after the launch of the company's Nexus One Android phone in January, life can be "a little hard" for Android developers. "Sometimes, they have to adapt," he said.
And developers will adapt, he added, so long as Android grabs a hefty market share. "This is going to sound really cynical, but the only thing that really matters is how many of these we ship — how many Android phones. There is a linear relationship between the number of phones you ship and the number of developers."
For Android developers, life is hard not just because there are so many versions of the OS to support, but because there's so little time to prepare for the latest version. Typically, a new version of Android hits the web just days before it turns up on commercial devices, and its SDK arrives no earlier.
Developers might have two weeks with the SDK before commercial devices arrive, and in the meantime, users are already loading the new version onto existing phones. This is the case, well, right now. Last week, Google released Android 2.2, codenamed Froyo. It's due on commercial devices in mid-June, but users are already loading the new OS onto other phones, including the Nexus One.
Developers have complained about applications suddenly breaking in the wake of a new Android announcement, and when we asked the company if there were a way to get an SDK to developers sooner, Rubin said, well, it's a balancing act.
"It is generally our policy to make things available to developers first," Rubin said. "Developers would want a lot of time between it being made available to them and phones shipping and not just little of time, and we're trying to find that happy medium."
Again, Google is working to get new devices into the market as quickly as possible, and from where the company is sitting, the strategy is paying off. Mountain View now claims that 100,000 Android devices are sold and activated every day, and according to one outside research firm, stateside Androids outsold the iPhone in the first quarter. ®
Update: This story has been updated to correct when Froyo is expected to arrive on commercial phones.