Android Development to Focus on Defragmentation — Good for Social Games

Google has been so busy building its Android mobile-focused operating system that its wide range of hardware and carrier partners hasn’t always kept pace, and now there’s four different versions live on various devices around the US and the world. But the company is tackling platform fragmentation this year, industry sources tell Engadget.

First, the company will begin pushing out its own apps in Market, its platform-wide app directory, instead of waiting for each manufacturer and carrier to do the upgrade. This means any user will simply be able to go to the directory and get the latest version of the hottest new Google app. The upgrade method applies to platform components as well, according to the report, so if Google offers a new version of a keyboard, for example, users can get that, too.

This change is good for encouraging users to buy Android devices, as it reduces the likelihood the phone they buy will be saddled with software that quickly becomes obsolete. The more important change for developers, however, is that Google is generally slowing down the development of new versions — it has come out with three in the last six months, for example, versus the iPhone’s one big update a year.

Android’s next version, called Froyo, is due out this year, and Engadget hears the following: “By the time we get to Froyo, the underlying platform — and the API that [developers] need to target — will be reaching legitimate maturity for the first time, which means we should have far fewer tasty treat-themed code names to worry about over the course of an average year.”

Despite the growing number of Android devices in users’ hands, it is not yet a competitive platform for building mobile games versus Apple’s iPhone because of the fragmentation problem. Two Android devices in different parts of the world may have diverging implementations of the operating system due to factors like the carrier’s version upgrade schedule, software customization and the type of hardware. Instead of building multiple versions of Android apps intended for all the possible iterations of Android out there, the iPhone has been more attractive because developers only need to build one app to reach the user base. While that ecosystem is still limited in size and revenue by the lack of means for discovering apps, some developers report making good progress building in social features that monetize.

Many social gaming companies we’ve spoken with say that they’re waiting for the mobile app market to get bigger than the iPhone before it is attractive enough to distract them from the opportunities on Facebook and other web sites. In the meantime, the closest possibility is using Flash (not available on the iPhone) on Android to play games within social networks, as the screenshot shows.

Google wants to change all this, however — game developers who attended GDC earlier this month likely noticed its widespread presence.

So, if the company does indeed make core user-facing upgrades easier to access, and if it does slow down development and help partners catch up this year, the fragmentation problem won’t be so bad. This will in turn strengthen the entire Android ecosystem, in terms of social gaming, because more users could be attracted to the devices, more mobile developers to the platform — and more social gaming companies to mobile app development.

[Screenshot via Redmond Pie.]