Openness has always been Android's beauty and its curse. Google's mobile operating system is available to any manufacturer that wants a slice, meaning you see it everywhere! It's also historically been a place for hardware specialists and carriers to flex their software muscles, leading to custom alterations—skins—that often leave an elegant smartphone solution ugly, unusable, or both.
Finally, that's about to change. Thank goodness.
According to Bloomberg, Google has spent the last several months tightening the reigns on its Android partners. They're having licensees sign "non-fragmentation clauses" that give Mountain View final say over the platform tweaks that can cripple a perfectly good phone. The OEMs are up in arms, obviously, but they shouldn't be. Because what Google's doing is making sure consumers know exactly what they're getting. They're making "Android" mean something again.
The biggest problem often isn't the skins themselves. Many people find HTC Sense to be a welcome improvement over stock Android, while others—someone out there, I'm sure—may dig Motorola's social-savvy Motoblur. But the more aggressively companies manipulate Android, the longer their customers have to wait for firmware updates that bring crucial services. Some handsets end up never being updated at all. No, really... it's bad out there.
Even worse, handset manufacturers continuously release products with outdated versions of Android, either because of internal foot-dragging or carrier demands. Anyone who bought the Dell Aero last August may have technically been buying an Android phone, but at the time it was a three-generations old version of Android.
So if Google wants to keep its partners in line to guarantee a consistent user experience, so be it. It's their platform, and their right to institute some much-needed quality control. It's the firmware version of the conundrum Microsoft faced with Windows Mobile, when an absence of hardware requirements resulted in an ecosystem so messy they had to scrap the whole thing and start over with WP7.
Yes, there are some concerns that Google could overplay its hand, as with reports that they're pressuring Verizon to drop Bing from some phones. But the core issue—that consumers deserve an Android label that means something—is one that Google's long overdue in addressing. Better late than never. [Bloomberg]