There is a rumor that Amazon today will announce an Android based smartphone tomorrow. And despite repeated denials there is also a persistent rumor of a Facebook phone that might be Android based. In China there are already several custom phones based on Android, such as the one by Xiaomi. Some people are seeing this as further evidence that Android will fragment to a point where it will be no longer be a single platform.
While that’s is a possibility, I actually think that it speaks to the strength of Android and is much more likely to be a highly transitory phase. We are still early in the market for smartphones and that’s where a lot of experimentation is actually a plus. Android phones have already given us many more screen sizes, phone form factors, home screen designs, price points etc. than the iPhone. Admittedly, many of these experiments have been terrible, but big screen phones were pioneered on Android and are a real hit with users. As are cheap smartphones in large parts of the world.
This experimentation phase won’t last forever though. Instead, it is likely that within the next couple of years we will settle on a limited number of display sizes. Also the variety of processor speeds and capabilities is likely to decrease as more and more phones will have reasonably fast processors. Given the relatively fast phone upgrade cycles older Android phones will disappear fairly quickly.
The Android phones that will succeed with users over time will be the ones that do the best job running the most popular applications. An Amazon phone that cannot run other popular Android applications without a major effort by developers is not likely to succeed in the long run. While Amazon, Facebook, Xiaomi, et al may try to make it hard for people to get to apps outside their respective app stores, that too is quite likely to give way over time as long as Android stays sufficiently open so that people can sideload apps (Including new app market places).
So I think the right time to judge Android fragmentation and its effect is not today but a couple of years from now when the pace of innovation on phone hardware has slowed down a bit, the market had time to shake out weaker phones and only a few app markets matter.