New Android seen easing OS fragmentation

Ice Cream Sandwich, the latest version of Android, is likely to ease the fragmentation of the operating system, some device executives said on Thursday.

Google unveiled Ice Cream Sandwich last month in the Galaxy Nexus, set to go on sale this month in the U.S., Europe and Asia. The new OS achieves much of what device makers have been trying to achieve by augmenting earlier Android releases on their own, which has created differences among versions on the market, according to some speakers on a panel at the Open Mobile Summit in San Francisco. Device makers and carriers have customized Android for their own purposes since it was introduced in 2007.

The new OS takes Android “dramatically forward,” said Kevin Packingham, senior vice president of product innovation at Samsung. Among other things, it requires no physical buttons and includes a feature for swiping applications off the screen.

“There has been some fragmentation with Android, since it’s been on such a quick development pace … now that, I think, a lot of those baseline capabilities are available, that that fragmentation will continue to diminish over time,” Packingham said.

Samsung and Google co-developed the Galaxy Nexus and Ice Cream Sandwich side-by-side in the same building. But another Android handset maker also praised the new OS.

“They totally renovated their user experience,” said Jinsung Choi, a senior vice president at LG. “Probably that will make our life a lot easier … we don’t need to make any modifications.”

Also on Thursday, all the executives on the panel, who represented Samsung Electronics, LG Electronics, ZTE and Sony Ericsson, said they don’t expect any ill effects from Google’s planned acquisition of Motorola Mobility. Some even expect it to benefit the Android device ecosystem.

The deal, which is expected to close by early 2012, would give the creator of Android control over a key competitor for handsets using the OS. But none of the executives voiced concern when asked his view of the deal.

“By having their own development shop with Motorola, I think it really benefits all of us,” said Samsung’s Packingham, who works for the biggest Android device maker. With a handset maker under its ownership, Google will be able to give third-party Android developers access to important hardware features as they developed for future Motorola phones and tablets, Packingham said. Developers want to be able to use features such as improved cameras and location capabilities, he said.

“It’s tough to get behind the scenes and really figure out how to expose those new, innovative technologies to developers,” because doing so would reveal Samsung’s future hardware specifications to its competitors, Packingham said.

Google is only buying Motorola to acquire its patents and protect the Android ecosystem from intellectual-property lawsuits, said Jan Uddenfeldt, chief technology officer of Sony Ericsson. It won’t merge the Motorola and Android organizations and give the handset business an inside track, Uddenfeldt said. “The last thing in they would like to happen is to create a vertical … that would only destroy the market share for Android.”

Asked about the future of feature phones, the less capable and less expensive handsets that preceded smartphones, most of the panelists said there will remain a market for them. While smartphones make up 30 percent to 40 percent of unit sales for ZTE, feature phones still make up about 60 percent, said Lixin Cheng, CEO of ZTE USA. For one thing, they are popular with consumers who prefer a physical keypad to a touchscreen, he said.

ZTE is developing a “feature phone with a smartphone-like experience” that will go on sale from a U.S. carrier before Black Friday, Cheng said. Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving and the traditional first day of the holiday shopping season in the U.S., falling on Nov. 25 this year.

“The so-called feature phone and smartphone is always relative,” Cheng said, pointing out that there are phones now in development being called “superphones.” “The smartphone today could be a feature phone tomorrow.”

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