When you control the pipes, you control the ecosystem. At the very least, you can impose your will on a good portion of the environment. This is what the mobile industry has come down to in the United States. Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint have as much or more say about the devices that eventually reach consumers hands than the platform providers or manufacturers.
Why do Android device updates take so long? Ask the carriers. Why are there half a dozen different skins for Android smartphones? Ask the carriers. Why do high-end smartphones cost what they do? Ask the carriers. Why did Nokia have to wait to enter the U.S. market with its new Lumia line? Ask the carriers. Why are there a ton of different versions of the Samsung Galaxy? Ask ... you get the picture.
The Requirements Of The Carriers
Motorola Mobility CEO Sanjay Jha sat down with The Verge at the Consumer Electronics show this week and made the comment that "Verizon and AT&T don't want seven stock ICS devices on their shelves ... The vast majority of the changes we make to the OS are to meet the requirements of the carriers."
Think about that last sentence for a second. "The requirements of the carriers." Like it or not, the carriers are the gatekeepers to the entire mobile ecosystem in the United States. Hence, the carriers can make almost any demands and the original equipment manufacturers are forced to comply. This is why we see the skins on various Android smartphones like TouchWiz for Samsung and Sense from HTC.
The problem for Android and carrier-driven differentiation is fairly simple. Most OEMs are not very good at software. Motorola, for instance, has struggled for years in coming up with useful, dynamic and functional user interfaces. HTC is a lot better and Sense is actually an enjoyable interface on its Android smartphones. Samsung is a different story altogether.
Samsung Sets The Tone
Samsung is on a course to be the largest smartphone manufacturer on the planet. How have they done this? Outside of the bland argument that "they have copied everything Apple has ever done," the answer is easy to understand. Samsung is completely willing to do whatever Google, Microsoft or the carriers want. More than any other company, Samsung plays the current mobile ecosystem to great success. Be everything to everybody. It is a brilliant strategy.
Samsung wanted to launch the original Samsung Galaxy S on every carrier in the U.S. That was not going to happen though if every device was exactly the same. That is why we have four different devices that are ostensibly the same hardware. Sprint wanted its Galaxy S to have a keyboard and use WiMax "4G." Hey, no problem. AT&T wanted a slimmed down version that looked like an iPhone. This can be done. Verizon wanted something similar but looked different than AT&T's. That should not be a problem.
By being pliant to the their wishes, Samsung gives the carriers power and to a certain extent hamstrings the rest of the OEM and mobile operating system ecosystem. To keep up with Samsung, the rest of the Android OEMs have to attempt to play the same game.
In The Verge's interview with Jha, it sounds like he is fed up with trying to match Samsung and the rest of the OEMs and the carrier requirements. Jha understands that to make money in the Android ecosystem, Motorola smartphones are going to need to be different. Jha said this week that Motorola is going to make fewer phones and, presumably, think outside of the rat race that Android has become.
The Real Source Of Fragmentation
More than any other force, the carriers are responsible for the "fragmentation" of Android. The individual skins are not a specific requirement, but not having several stock Android devices on the shelves (at least one with that option would be nice) forces the OEMs' hands. When it comes to device updates, such as what phones will get Android Ice Cream Sandwich, the carriers dictate how much data will flow through their pipes. The OEMs are not outside of blame for updates but the fact of the matter is that the carriers are the primary drivers of the fact that each OEM has to come out with a new Android device seemingly every other week. That puts a huge burden on the software integration departments of the OEMs that have to update each device.
Google chairman Erik Schmidt says that Android is not fragmented and argues that differentiation is a good thing. Hey, variety is the spice of life, yes? To a certain extent, he is not wrong. Personally, I do not want seven stock Android devices to choose from either. The problem comes when the skins, screen sizes and lack of updates make it difficult for developers to support several different types of Android.
Microsoft, Windows Phone and its biggest champion, Nokia, are not immune for the whip of the carriers either. One of the reasons that the Lumia line was not released to the U.S. before the end of 2011 was that Nokia had to navigate the individual wishes of every carrier. T-Mobile made it easy for Nokia by basically saying, "we do not mind taking a stock Windows Phone Lumia 710." It is likely that no other carrier is going to sell the Lumia 710, so that is differentiation in and of itself. But AT&T was not having any of it. The Lumia 900 is what Nokia delivered and it is different from not just T-Mobile's 710, but also the Lumia 800 that most of Europe got. Verizon will likely take something akin to the 900, but it will not want it to be exactly the same thing that AT&T got. Nokia is willing to play this game because it does not have much of a choice. Samsung set the precedent with the carriers and Nokia does not have the U.S. clout or the hype of Apple's iPhone to defy what the carriers' want.
Apple is the one OEM that stands outside of all these politics. The smartphone revolution was started when Apple released the original iPhone. It was such a revelation that it has become a symbol as much as a smartphone. Apple can dictate terms whereas the other OEMs cannot. It would be interesting to go back into a deviant version of history and replace Apple with Motorola or some other OEM and see if Apple's strategy remained the same or if it would be forced to carrier whims.
The gatekeepers set the terms. Until a real alternative is created and realistically implemented, this is the way the mobile industry in the U.S. will continue into the future. Outside of Apple and Google creating their own data networks, terms will be set by Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint for years to come.