How Google Is Managing the Android Fragmentation Issue

In what’s looking like a standard operating procedure, Google just released its free Gesture Search software for Android 1.6 devices and expanded availability outside of the U.S. The application launched two weeks ago on Android 2.x devices. With it, you can simply draw letters on your handset — Android will interpret them and return search results for contacts, applications, bookmarks and music. It works fairly well, although I personally prefer the voice search functionality on my phone. But the big story isn’t one single new feature — it’s how Google (s goog) is managing the Android fragmentation issue — and it just hit me as I noticed the pattern.

Google knows that it has a problem in that there are four different shipping versions of Android right now. There was talk of Google trying to get all the different handsets on one base version this year, but I don’t see such a de-frag happening. It’s not Google’s call because the carriers typically make the decision to push firmware updates, not Google. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Google working aggressively with any handset makers that offer an Android 1.5 device on a 1.6 upgrade, however. That move is just a baby step and the current hardware running 1.5 can surely run 1.6 without any performance degradation.

So what’s the pattern I see? Since Google can’t control the versioning issue, they can at least control core functions and apps among the operating system variances. So when Android 2.x learns a new trick, there’s a good chance Android 1.6 will learn it too. Need a few examples?

  • Google Navigation — this stock-dropping navigation tool debuted on the Motorola Droid with Android 2.0. The date? October 28. On November 23, Google Nav landed on Android 1.6 devices.
  • Google Maps Enhancements – On December 7th, the what’s nearby on Google Maps was added for Android 1.6 or better. In this case, Android 1.6 received new functionality simultaneously with Android 2.x phones.
  • Google Buzz — launched on February 9th, the web client and shortcuts works only on Android 2.x devices, but an update to the official post says “For Android users, and shortcuts are currently available only for phones with Android 2.0+ and we’re working to support other versions soon.” By “other versions” I take that to mean Android 1.6. And current 1.6 devices can use some Buzz features in the latest Google Maps client.

I see two things going on here. One is an effort to follow up as many Android 2.x features on Android 1.6 devices if possible. And where it is possible, Google releases a feature, function or application for both 1.6 and 2.x devices at the same time. If the feature isn’t ready for the older platform, Google releases it for 2.x and follows up relatively quickly with a 1.6 update. It fits the iterate early and often pattern found in Google approach to pretty much everything. The feature-parity approach diminishes the fragmentation issue by attempting to level the functionality playing field across devices.

My second observation? I’m starting to think that Google is passively trying to reduce fragmentation by steering towards two main OS versions as opposed to four: Android 1.6 and a common Android 2.x version. Again, it can’t force an Android 2.0 handset to 2.1, but we’re starting to see some phones getting upgraded — the Motorola (s mot) Droid is on tap for Android 2.1 as early as tomorrow, for example. And we have direct word that the HTC Eris will gain Android 2.x as well.

Without exercising direct control like Apple (s aapl) does, Google has little choice in how to deal with the fragmentation. But they are dealing it with in a unique and quiet manner, likely due to some lessons learned with four platform versions to support. It’s a clever move from where I stand and makes me wonder if this won’t be problem a problem with Android 3.0 — I expect Google will greatly reduced the fragmentation issue by then.

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