Netflix shows Android’s ugly fragmentation

Features Marin Perez 08:30, May 16 2011

The Netflix Android app is really cool but it shows off the ugly side of Android’s fragmentation

Movie fans must have rejoiced last week when the Netflix app landed in the Android Market but not every Android user could get access to the streaming movie goodness. This is a particularly ugly example of fragmentation again showing its face on Google’s mobile platform.

The Netflix app is available for only five Android handsets: the HTC Incredible, HTC Nexus One, HTC EVO 4G, HTC G2 and the Samsung Nexus S. That means most of the super-popular Verizon DROID lineup, Samsung Galaxy S phones, Motorola’s latest portfolio and many others cannot have access to this service on the go.

That’s a downer for millions of Android users.

Most of the time when I complain about Android fragmentation woes, it’s about multiple devices not getting access to the latest version of the software. This is often due to a custom user interface layer or the carriers’ certification process getting in the way but what’s incredibly troubling about this fragmentation is that it’s a hardware issue.

If you notice, all of the handsets that can use the Netflix Android app have processors made by Qualcomm. The movie streaming service previously said that’s because Qualcomm makes products that can handle the digital-rights management needed to handle this copyrighted material.

The Android community is fun, so there’s already a way to get the Netflix app working on other devices but the process involves rooting and is probably too difficult for the mainstream audience. The content partners are probably not going to relent on the DRM requirements any time soon, so millions and millions of users won’t be able to get a popular app.

This could lead to an even more confusing buying experience for a user because there are already so many factors in choosing a smartphone. On top of what carrier, monthly plan, handset pricing and form factor, consumers will now have to take into account which company produces the processor or they risk being left out of cool apps that their friends can use. That’s ridiculous.  

What’s even worse is that the devices which can’t run the Netflix app are still packed with processors that are on par with anything Qualcomm is producing. NVIDIA’s Tegra lineup is extremely powerful and even Texas Instruments is making some quality mobile chips. These companies are now being faced with the major disadvantage of not being able to run a powerful and well-liked app.

I have to take Netflix at its word when it says that only Qualcomm provides the DRM needed for this experience but this also opens the door for more hardware-specific exclusives. Chip makers may spend big bucks to lock up exclusive apps like Hulu Plus and that will lead to a muddled market that’s not good for consumers.

I don’t know how big of an issue it will be for many Android smartphone users because watching streaming movies on a phone is neat to have, but it’s not necessarily the greatest experience due to the small screen. This could be a major issue on Android tablets though, as devices like the Motorola XOOM, T-Mobile G Slate and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 don’t use processors made by Qualcomm and these are ideal for streaming movies.

I still have a lot of hope that the Netflix Android app will be coming to other processors in the not-too-distant future, as the DRM issue could potentially be address at an OS level with Ice Cream Sandwich. Still, I think a bigger catalyst will be mainstream Android users complaining to Netflix and all the handset makers.

If you want the Netflix Android app on your phone, you’re going to have to raise a ruckus.

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