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Why Android Tablets May Never Catch the iPad

The splintering of Android into so many different versions on so many different devices, known as fragmentation, is dragging everything down.

Android, with Apple's head start, originally was a primitive competitor for the Apple iOS platform that powers the iPhone and iPad. But finally, with the release of Android 4.0 in October, Google's mobile operating system is in the same league as iOS. It has a polished, feature-rich user interface.

It's too bad that today, about six months later, only some 3 percent of Android devices run that version, also known as Ice Cream Sandwich, or ICS.

The whopping majority, including most Android phones and the most popular Android tablets, run on Android 2.3, a considerably less sophisticated version, also known as Gingerbread. In part because of Gingerbread's missing polish, many device manufacturers gussied it up by putting their own user interface on top of the open-source operating system.

Hence Amazon's Kindle Fire and the competing Barnes & Noble tablets, which both run Gingerbread, look and operate differently. A Samsung Android phone doesn't look or work like an HTC phone, which doesn't look or work like an LG or Sony or Motorola phone, even though they all run Gingerbread. Samsung has its TouchWiz user interface, HTC has Sense, Motorola has MotoBlur.

Amazon so changed Gingerbread on the Kindle Fire that observers openly wonder whether it plans to implement any upgraded version of Android, or possibly make its own operating system for future devices.

On top of that, each wireless carrier wants its own customization, so even the same brand and model of phone may have different versions of Android depending on whether its a Verizon, AT&T or Sprint phone, for instance.

Vive la difference, right? Not so much. The open nature of Android has led to so many different implementations, on so many different devices, that upgrading each device to the latest version is a headache requiring tweaks and customization just to get it to run correctly. This problem has a name: fragmentation.

So when Apple announces a new version of its iOS for the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch, it can begin rolling out updates the next day through iTunes. When Google releases a new version of Android, its up to each device manufacturer to make the necessary changes to get it to run and then push it out either through the device's wireless carrier or through whatever Android marketplace the device connects to.

And there's not much impetus for manufacturers to update. There's no financial reward to upgrade a device that's already been sold. Upgrades are a cost center and invite never-ending rounds of support as bugs are worked out. Not only that, but a customer with an upgraded phone has less reason to dump it and buy the latest model.

For these reasons, if you're wondering when your Android device is getting an upgrade to the latest and greatest version of Android, the answer varies mostly between a really long time from now and never. That news makes a lot of us gadget freaks sad and means Google's best effort at Android is in the hands of just 3 percent of its users.

But wait, there's more. Fragmentation drives app developers nuts. Witness this Twitter exchange between two developers cited recently in a ZDNet blog:

Natalia Luckyanova: 99.9% of support emails are complaining their device isn't supported. We currently support 707 devices. Mindblowing.

David Smith: My android developer stats show 1443 unique devices on Android Market. You're almost half way there ;-) Congrats on the launch.

So while Android as an operating system continues to grow, the actual percentage of developers who want to develop apps for it is decreasing in favor of Apple. This is especially critical in the market for Android tablets, where the number of apps available specifically for that form factor lags badly behind the iPad.

So while Android tablets look this year like they could catch up with the iPad in market share, the reality is that it's a boom fueled mainly by the introduction of the Kindle Fire and Nook tablets at half the price of an iPad. According to the latest prediction by industry research firm Gartner, that explosive share growth won't last.

Instead, the firm predicts the iPad will continue to dominate the tablet market through at least 2016. The reason: Not as many apps for Android. And one of the biggest reasons for that: fragmentation.

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