First it was Google Maps Navigation (Beta), which at first brought free spoken turn-by-turn directions to only the Motorola Droid (and later devices running OS 1.6 and up). Then came Google Buzz for mobile, the controversial social networking service, which is currently available for those Android phones running 2.0 and up. And just yesterday, the search-giant-turned-smart-phone-mogul released the very cool Gesture Search app, which allows users to look up contacts and locate applications just by scribbling a letter on the screen. Have a Motorola Cliq or a HTC Droid Eris or a Samsung Moment? Sucks to be you, because this app is also limited to Android 2.0 or above. It’s clear that Google is favoring the newer versions of its OS. This unfairly punishes both owners of devices running older flavors of Android, as well as Google’s partners.
Let’s start with the impact on users. Right now, T-Mobile sells four Android phones. Guess how many run Android 2.0 or higher? Zilch. The only 2.0 device you can use on T-Mobile’s network that offers all of the above goodies is sold directly through Google, the Nexus One. Sprint doesn’t sell a single Android phone running 1.6 or higher, although it promises to upgrade its devices. Verizon Wireless has one phone that runs 1.6, the Motorola Devour, so you can download the beta of Google Maps Navigation, but not Buzz for mobile or Gesture Search. The Droid runs 2.0, and will be upgraded to 2.1 soon. The only AT&T Android phone, the brand-new Motorola Backflip, runs 1.5.
Historically, consumers haven’t paid attention to what OS their smart phone runs, nevermind the specific version. But it matters when you can’t access certain features and apps that other Android device owners can. Even first-gen iPhone owners can upgrade their devices to run the latest software.
On the other hand, most of the Android phones that run an older version of the OS have a more compelling user interface, such as Motorola’s social-networking themed Motoblur or HTC’s Sense. What shoppers can’t have—at least for the moment—is the best of both worlds. Why shouldn’t a Droid Eris or myTouch 3G be able to use Google Buzz or Gesture Search? And why is it taking so long for handset makers to upgrade their wares to the latest OS? Diversity can be a good thing for consumer choice, but shoppers shouldn’t have to choose between a slicker UI and being able to take advantage of Google’s latest features.
Some might accuse Google of forcing Android phone makers to think twice about adding their own skins and services to its OS. Fragmentation is bad for software developers because they have to ensure that their apps work across multiple versions of the OS. Google is sending a message by only releasing its own latest apps for the newest versions of its platform. And if the likes of HTC, Motorola, and others can’t keep up with the latest releases, they might feel pressure to drop their own services in favor of the stock Google experience. That might be good for developers, but not for competition and differentiation.
Not long ago I said that Android was the new Windows Mobile. But, at least based on its recent behavior, it looks as though Google wants its OS to become the new Windows Phone 7 Series, with a much more unified user experience. In the meantime, Android phone buyers will continue to be confused by a seemingly artificial barrier that prevents their “old OS” devices from enjoying Google’s own innovations. Google needs to either work with its partners to make sure that all new Android phones going forward run its latest OS (regardless of the UI) or create different tiers for phones with different capabilities. Android Starter, anyone?
Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP’s online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark’s SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on twitter.