The downside of open is fragmentation. CES earlier this month was overflowing with Android tablets and smartphones, but since anyone can use Android, device manufacturers may disappoint users, for example by shipping tablets that do not use a version of Android designed for tablets, or shipping devices that do not have access to the official Android Market.
The Inquirer reported yesterday that the Asus tablets announced at CES will not in fact ship with Android 3.0 Honeycomb. The reason stated is that:
because the company did not know the detailed technical specifications requirements of the Android 3.0 Honeycomb operating system, it could not confirm that Honeycomb will be the tablets’ OS.
Although it is stated that the tablets will ship with Android 2.3 Gingerbread, I get the impression that Asus might upgrade them to Honeycomb eventually; and since they are now apparently not due until the third quarter there is time for plans to change.
Not all Android devices have Google’s official compatibility blessing. The frequently asked questions make a good read:
Anyone is welcome to use the Android source code, but if the device isn’t compatible, it’s not considered part of the Android ecosystem.
Only devices that have passed Google’s compatibility tests get access to the Android Market. This leads to a surprising situation for users: you might buy an Android tablet or smartphone and find that it has no access to the Android Market.
Vendors can get round this to some extent by creating their own Android app stores, though this kind of fragmentation is likely to have a bad outcome, with a limited selection of apps and insufficient market share to attract developer attention.
This means that a handy question to ask a salesman is: does this gadget have the Android Market? If the answer is anything less than a demo of the official Google Android Market client, that is reason for caution.
The context is that all these devices have to compete with Apple; and the App Store is a significant part of the appeal of iOS devices. Therefore an Android device without access to the Android Market is disadvantaged, though it is not something you are likely to find mentioned on the box.
There is an obvious danger for Android, that customers confronted with a vast range of Android offerings will find it hard to distinguish between what is excellent, what is reasonable, and horrible implementations like the Next Tablet.
Even the element of uncertainty is enough to help Apple, which is likely to announce a second generation iPad soon. It may even give hope to Microsoft, depending on when “Windows 8” tablets come to market and how good they prove to be.
The challenge for Google is how to keep Android open, while also preventing its brand from being damaged by too many sub-standard devices.