Android developers often complain about fragmentation of the platform, and Google apparently agrees – so much so that it's written an anti-fragmentation clause into the license terms of the latest Android SDK (software development kit).
Under Section 3.4 of Google's new terms and conditions, "You agree that you will not take any actions that may cause or result in the fragmentation of Android, including but not limited to distributing, participating in the creation of, or promoting in any way a software development kit derived from the SDK."
The new clause was added on Monday to coincide with the release of the Android 4.2 SDK. It's the first significant update to the license since the previous version, which was issued in 2009. Barring a few linguistic tweaks, all of the other clauses remain essentially unchanged.
On first blush, the new rule may seem a little odd. Many Android developers agree that fragmentation of the platform is a problem, but they typically pin the blame on Google, handset makers, and mobile carriers, rather than on their own behavior.
Unlike iOS (for example), Android runs on a wide range of devices with varying screen sizes and hardware capabilities. It's up to device makers to ensure that their kit is up-to-date with the latest Android version, but most don't bother, leaving many devices running antiquated versions of the OS long past their expiration dates.
According to the Chocolate Factory's latest statistics, 54.2 per cent of all Android devices in use today are still running Android 2.3, code named "Gingerbread," a version that debuted in 2010.
Google has issued three major releases of the OS since then, but although all three have brought valuable new features, they have struggled to gain traction. Android 4.0, code named "Ice Cream Sandwich," has the most momentum, having captured 25.8 per cent of the market, but even it is a year old.
Android 4.2 is actually the second iteration of the successor to Ice Cream Sandwich, code named "Jelly Bean," but even the previous release is running on less than 3 per cent of the devices in active use.
Given all of the different permutations of hardware and OS in play, it seemingly would be difficult for developers to fragment the Android platform any more than it already is.
Or would it? Recall the case of the mysterious Acer-built handset that Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba had planned to launch in September. Under pressure from Google, Acer canceled its CloudMobile A800 launch event at the last minute, leaving Alibaba in a lurch.
To hear Alibaba tell it, the A800 wasn't an Android mobe at all; rather, it ran Aliyun, the Chinese firm's homegrown Linux-based smartphone platform. But Google couldn't help but notice that while Aliyun wasn't fully compatible with Android, it still made use of the Android runtime, frameworks, and developer tools, which the search giant said was a no-no.
At the time, the issue appeared to be something of a gray area, since Android is at least nominally open source. Under the new terms of the Android SDK, however, the prohibition becomes explicit: Use the Android tools to make something that isn't Android and you lose your rights to the tools.
Just what the change means for the future of Aliyun is unclear. Shortly after Acer pulled its A800, Alibaba insisted it was still moving ahead with the platform, though it would not comment on how. Those hopes may be fading, however; on last count, Android handsets accounted for more than 70 per cent of the Chinese smartphone market.
Now if Google could only get them all using an up-to-date version. ®