When I talked to Deutsche Bank wireless and GPS analyst Jonathan Goldman last week, he was largely bullish on Android and its ability gain market share as a smart phone operating system. But one thing did concern him, and its exactly the thing that Apple (AAPL) CEO Steven P. Jobs is counting on: Too many different handsets running Android means trouble in the app store.
As the number of wireless handsets running Google's (GOOG) Android operating system continues to climb, analysts and cell phone watchers are growing more bullish on the prospect of the search giant cracking the code for a viable iPhone competitor. One Android model, Motorola's (MOT) Droid, has gotten extremely strong reviews, and other phones, particularly those from Taiwanese device maker HTC, are attracting the attention of gadget hounds. But one key cohort in the mobile phone ecosystem is getting nervous.
That would be application developers. While the number of Android apps is growing quickly, so too are the number of differentiated user-interfaces for Android phones. This is the key weakness in Google's Android attack. Give the handset makers no way to differentiate their products, and they won't be interested because they might as well be making bricks rather than electronics.
But if handset makers insist on too much diversity in how Android looks, feels and runs on their phones, then applications developers suffer because each new handset means additional -- and ultimately expensive -- code tweaks to the applications in order to make them run well and look good on each different phone.
Where Uniformity Matters -- and Doesn't
In that sense, Google, the handset makers and the carriers all need to find a happy medium between too much phone diversity -- chaos for application makers -- and too little phone diversity -- not interesting to the phone makers. (Whether customers care or not appears an open question -- iPhone subscribers don't seem to mind uniformity). Apple has solved this problem by controlling the device and the application interface while relegating carrier AT&T (T) to the backseat in terms of its control over the look and feel of the phones.
This has long been Apple's contention and key strategy: The simplicity, reliability and user experience of its products can be maximized only if Apple controls both the hardware and the software to a much greater degree than other handset or computer companies. But Google has specifically gone after Apple in eye-catching ads on the topic of closed development platforms and the control-freak nature of Steve Jobs's tight embrace of his beloved iPhone. And it has staked its own claim to building a more open mobile phone ecosystem.
The promise of Android is surely luring away app developers frustrated with the iPhone's arcane and opaque approval process for the application store. The rabid competition for attention among iPhone applications, which number over 100,000, is another clear negative factor pushing developers toward the less-crowded Android platform.
Not surprisingly, the number of Android apps has soared past 10,000. At the same time, the bottleneck in Apple's iPhone ecosystem and Apple's refusal to be transparent about how its approval process works has led to open expressions of outrage from many developers.
Struggling to Keep Up
But will this all end badly for Android? It's a distinct possibility as more and more models of Android phones roll out, each with its own distinctive user interface that requires application developers to customize their software for the specific handset. How bad can that chaos get?
Deutsche Bank's Goldman wrote that game maker Electronic Arts (ERTS) keeps on file 2,500 phone configurations and specifications for quality assurance testing purposes. This is clearly a level of complexity that would eliminate more than 95% of all smart phone application developers from the business. Most small development companies are struggling to build applications for iPhone, BlackBerry (RIMM), Palm (PALM) and Android, alone.
In that sense, Android could become a victim of its own success. Android is open source, so technically Google can't tell handset makers to stop using it. As more and more of them announce Android models, the platform proliferation will gum up the gears for application developers, thereby reducing the number of good Android apps. This in turn would diminish the ultimate attraction of the operating system.
So yes, there can be too many Android phones. With over a dozen models already announced, we may not be too far from that point.
Alex Salkever is Senior Writer at AOL Daily Finance covering technology and greentech. Follow him on twitter @alexsalkever, read his articles, or email him at email@example.com.
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