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Apple Benefits From Google's Fragmented Android


Nexus One gets multitouch but what about the others?

"May I help you?"
"Yes, hi. I'm interested in upgrading to Windows 7."
"Fantastic. Which edition?"
"I'm sorry?"
"Which edition of Windows 7 would you like? We have Starter, Home Basic, Home Premium, Professional, Enterprise, and Ultimate."
"Uh-huh. What do you have in the way of Macs?"

Although it isn't likely that many Windows (MSFT) users switched teams to Apple (AAPL) simply because Microsoft offered too many versions of its latest platform, the hypothetical exchange does reflect the overall confusion and tendency to avoid a product if it comes in a wide variety of flavors. Psychologist Barry Schwartz refers to this modern-day phenomena as "The Paradox of Choice." Essentially, a person becomes overwhelmed and retreats if given too many options.

Critics have leveled that argument against Google's (GOOG) mobile OS Android since its inception and predicted that the many faces of the open-source platform could be its downfall. And after another coveted feature received a limited debut, it's easier to see why.

Google's Nexus One smartphone -- the latest superstar in the Android line -- was given an over-the-air update this week that implemented a number of new features. Along with updates in Google Maps, 3G, and the standard inclusion of Google Goggles, Nexus One users were provided with a huge comeback against gibes made by snide iPhone owners: Multitouch.

A major point of bragging rights, multitouch was bandied about by many iPhone owners as the only reason they wouldn't consider giving up their shiny Apple product in favor of an Android phone. Now, the Nexus One becomes the first Android phone to officially support it stateside.

Although it's still a legal question of intellectual property -- Apple claims it owns the patent -- many competitors have implemented the feature in their products, regardless. The Palm Pre (PALM) and the Motorola Milestone (MOT) in Europe are among the smartphones that have both the hardware capability and the software that supports it.

While the Motorola Droid and T-Mobile's (DT) G1 are designed to support multitouch -- and run several third-party apps that take advantage of it -- the core software doesn't allow access to the feature in the Web browser and image gallery. Naturally, many owners of the older Android devices are more than a little frustrated -- especially considering this isn't the first time a device was given preferential treatment.

The Nexus One currently runs the Android 2.1 version, the Droid lags behind with 2.0.1, and the HTC Droid Eris barely keeps up with 1.5. Features like Google Maps Navigation, Live Wallpapers, and certain Voice Search capabilities are available on certain smartphones, but not others. And while the Motorola Droid is at the top of the waiting list for the 2.1 upgrade, multitouch won't necessarily be a part of it, leaving two different kinds of 2.1 platforms. Even providers like Verizon (VZ) and AT&T (T) have a say as to when phones get upgrades, placing more hurdles and forked roads in between user and function.

Meanwhile, Apple controls almost every feature released on its iPhone and keeps the majority of its user base on the same version. By and large, customers know what they're getting when they purchase an iPhone -- an important aspect that stands in stark contrast to a potential Android customer. With Apple, there's little confusion and choice is basically limited to storage space.

It's Apple's bread and butter and it's won over millions of customers with it.

Then again, not everyone cottons to that level of control -- which is partly why Android is set to explode this year in terms of smartphones, apps, and users. Variety can be enticing, but for every hardware advancement and software upgrade, another tier forms and splits the Android product line down a multilevel pyramid. Despite the versatility of open-source and the excitement of any upgrade, nobody likes being left behind. And without familiarization, few people confidently buy into it.

Android's many faces and features throw customers into a confusing lurch and, unfortunately, the only solution is to wait patiently and hope.
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