Google’s Android Favoritism Punishes Users and Partners

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.

AUTHOR BIO
Mark Spoonauer
Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptopmag.com, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.
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  1. Blake Robinson Says:

    I think Google’s only really goal in this is to move forward. Developers have hampered their devices with various modifications that have slowed their upgrade to newer versions of the OS.

    It’s prudent for Google to move forward with the OS. If anything, they should perhaps impose some specific requirements on devices that include logical upgrade paths and the like.

  2. sU2lly Says:

    Is it Googles fault that the carriers and phone manufacturers are taking so long to upgrade their Android offerings to 2.0 or 2.1? We learned last week that all Android phones on the market today can be and will be upgraded to 2.1. Are those of us with a 2.0 Android phone or higher to be told to wait for the latest and greatest apps. that come out of Google because those with older phones might feel left behind? Or should those with older phones be told to have some patients while the carriers or phone manufacturers try and speed up their attempts to update their customers phones to the latest Andrioid OS?

  3. Gib Wallis Says:

    I don’t think this is Google’s fault.

    Not every model can run every application.

    The Nexus One is the only model that Google has complete control over.

    There are three levels of Google Android phones — and the Google Experience phones are obviously going to get preference. So Motoblur and HTE Sense UI and the Sony Ericson Raechel UX and the Samsung Whiz UI are all going to be slower to get all the features. And some may even be locked down.

    Trust me, before buying my Nexus One, I comparison shopped and that was definitely a factor in swaying me for the Nexus One.

    Also, I’m not sure what your source is for a Buzz application, but you’re wrong. There’s isn’t a Buzz application from Google. There’s a Buzz pseudo-application in the Market, and it’s from Mediafill LLC. And it’s really just a shortcut to jump to the Buzz touch web site which all Android phones can access.

  4. ash Says:

    There’s an android app. I can’t have it. It’s really not that confusing.

  5. Irha Says:

    What a bunch of BS in this article.

    “Historically, consumers haven’t paid attention to what OS their smart phone runs, nevermind the specific version.”

    Come one now… are you even aware of an OS called Symbian? Since I bought a smartphone about 2 months back, 50% or more of the apps that I wanted to have are incompatible on my OS. I find several interesting free apps on OviStore but can’t install them, sometimes for as little different as s60v3 vs s60v5. I had very similar experience (though not that bad) with windows mobile when I had one a few years back and that caused me to pay attention to the OS.

    Your statement only applies to NON-smartphones who don’t really care what OS it runs, except whether it supports Java games or not.

  6. Jeff Says:

    I have a couple of responses to this. First, the author is assuming that it’s up to the developer to either make their software available to all who want it, regardless of cost, or to quell demand so that people with older hardware don’t want the newest apps. Second, (and this is tied to the first), the author seems to be assuming that all hardware, regardless of vintage, is capable of running all apps if only the developers weren’t so picky about which OS the hardware is running.

    I think that the flaws are clear here. As applications progress both in capability and complexity, they will require more advanced hardware to run them. My evidence is anecdotal on this, but I think it’s also a common sense thing. If you have a PC with an x386 processor, you probably won’t be able to run Adobe CS4, regardless of the OS. There may also be aspects of the latest OS that will require more advanced hardware than the legacy devices offer, and in turn the latest apps may require these more advanced OS aspects.

    I understand the author’s point here. Some may not see Android and the phones that run it as evolutionary animals, and may expect all apps to run on all devices just because, “They Android!” However I think this corner of the consumer market will be quite small, as most will have run into similar walls in other areas (see my admittedly extreme x386 example above). I believe that people will understand that if they purchase less capable equipment, they won’t have access to all apps. I also think that Google risks alienating those who do “get it” if they delay releasing the latest apps because they spend resources making the apps run on all platforms (not to mention the “dumbing down” of the app itself).

    Quite frankly, and no disrespect intended to the author, this sounds like a case of sour grapes to me. I don’t own a Nexus One. I have a MyTouch 3G LE. I decided to shy away from the Nexus because of the customer service nightmares that it was experiencing, and the MyTouch does everything that I need it to do, and does those things quite well. I also bought it after learning that T-Mo promised an upgrade to Android 2.1, so I’m not TOO far behind the times. However, I also bought it knowing full well that there would be sacrifices, and I think that most people see it the same way. Again, I only have anecdotes to back this up, but it’s my view nevertheless.

  7. Mark Spoonauer Says:

    I agree with many of the responses thus far. But part of my point is that Google and is partners need to be transparent about what their devices can and can’t do before you buy. That’s why Microsoft is splitting up Windows Phone into 7 Series and Starter. I can live with different tiers, so long as it’s less confusing. However, I’d like to see the evidence that Gesture Search and especially the Google Buzz app requires more robust hardware.

  8. Droid Forum Says:

    Isn’t this the way that almost all technology devices work? Some phones just dont’ have the power, or the OS. That’s not Google’s fault, but the hardware manufacturer and the carrier, both of whom have to coordinate the software upgrade.

  9. Fanfoot Says:

    Mark,

    Despite the responses from some, I agree with you. I think Google is screwing up here. Its possible the mistake was in under-specing the initial products so that in fact they COULDN’T run the later OS versions. Didn’t have enough RAM, CPU wasn’t fast enough to make mult-touch responsive, etc. And that will be a one-time thing. Over the hump now, all 2.0 + Android devices won’t have the problems of past devices.

    I’ll believe it when I see it though. Apple does their own updates using software running on your computer, allowing them to bypass AT&T to deliver updates. Why doesn’t Google do that?

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