With the recent launch of the Nexus One, HTC Desire, and Motorola Droid, things are certainly looking positive for Google's Android mobile platform.

Everywhere you turn there seems to be yet another handset manufacturer joining the cause, and with the freshly-announced HTC EVO 4G grabbing well-deserved column-inches the world over, 2010 is shaping up to be the year where Android truly asserts itself as the portable OS of choice.

However, despite these highly encouraging signs there's a massive flaw in Google's strategy which could undo all the hard-earned success accomplished so far: fragmentation.

Like Apple's iPhone firmware, Android has been revised and updated since its initial launch in 2008. At the time of writing the most advanced version is 2.1, which shipped with the Nexus One in January. However, a staggering percentage of Android handsets remain on a much lower version of the software.

The Motorola DEXT, HTC Hero, LG InTouch Max and T-Mobile Pulse are all running Android 1.5, which first graced the T-Mobile G1 way back in April 2009.

It gets even more worrying, though. Some newer Android phones - such as Motorola's shiny new Devour - are running 1.6 rather than 2.1, despite the fact that they have been launched after the arrival of Nexus One.

Why fragmentation occurs

When Google launched Android in 2008 it made it very clear that mobile manufacturers would be able to tailor the software to their own personal tastes.

This has resulted in some firms - such as HTC and Motorola - cooking up their own unique flavours of the OS. In the case of the former it's the gorgeous Sense UI and with the latter it's the Facebook and Twitter-friendly MOTOBLUR.

These enhanced versions of Android operate as a layer which sits on top of Google's software and they add in increased functionality, but the problem is that by tinkering with the code they no longer remain compatible with Google's 'stock' Android updates. They are essentially proprietary interfaces which have to be coded by the companies behind the phones themselves.

For that reason, phones which use these operating systems remain rooted to outdated versions of Android until their manufacturers chooses to update them.

In the case of the Hero - which, lest we forget, was the best selling Android handset in the UK during 2009 - HTC has been reluctant to update to 1.6 with 2.1 around the corner. The 2.1 update is now scheduled for April, although several dates have been promised (and missed) in the past.

Why fragmentation is hurting Android

You may wonder to yourself if this splintering of the Android market is really that much of a problem; after all, the underlying OS is the same so surely it's just a case of missing out on irrelevant extras, such as the rather self-indulgent Live Wallpapers offered by the Nexus One?

Sadly this couldn't be further from the truth. Those Android users with 1.5 phones are missing out on the new-look Android Market (which adds better navigation and the ability to view screenshots), expanded voice-search capability, text-to-speech functionality and better management of RAM-intensive applications - as well as numerous other improvements.

What's more, many new Android applications are built around the 1.6 operating system or better, so 1.5 users are unable to use such programs as Google Googles, the new-and-improved Google Maps and several other cool apps.

In fact, it could be argued that anyone not running 2.1 is missing out - the recently released Android edition of Google Earth requires the very latest variant of the OS to function, which means it's only currently accessible to a small percentage of total users.

This segregation essentially creates an underclass of Android users who are currently missing out on all the big developments on the platform, and in the long-run that can only harm the future of the system.

Compare this to Apple's policy of ensuring that even the lowliest 2.5G iPhone is capable of running the latest firmware and you have to question Google's fractured approach.

Using the latest version of Android to sell a new device - as was the case with the 2.0-packing Droid and the 2.1-enabled Nexus One - may be an effective strategy for short-term sales but ultimately it's going to create unrest and dissatisfaction from users in the long-run.

The future of Android

If you're looking at jumping into bed with Android soon then the obvious advice is to stick with Google's own handsets, such as the Nexus One. Because it's running stock Android it is guaranteed to get vital updates first.

Phones such as the HTC Desire and HTC Legend may look stunning but they're running HTC's proprietary Sense UI on top of Android 2.1, so there's nothing to say that these devices won't follow the fate of the HTC Hero and be lumbered with the same operating system for the next 18 months.

Google needs to work together with manufacturers to ensure that the software they create can be updated quickly and easily.

In fact, it would be better for Android if manufacturers were forbidden from tinkering with the Android source code altogether, although this is unlikely to happen as firms like HTC, Motorola, and Sony Ericsson want to ensure their Android-based phones stand out from the competition, and software is an obvious means to that.

No handset maker is going to be content to run the same software as their rivals: they quite rightly wish to differentiate their products from the crowd in order to gain an identity. Sadly, this is an issue which is always going to be present while Android relies on third-party manufacturers to produce compatible handsets.

Google has gone to great lengths to assure Android users that every currently available handset is going to be updated to 2.1 at some point - even the lowly G1 will be getting the latest software, albeit without some of the more advanced features.

However, the time scale for this hasn't been satisfactorily explained and the recent delay in upgrading the Motorola Droid to 2.1 hardly engenders confidence.

The fact that Android handsets are increasing in power with each year is naturally creating a situation where Google is adding in elements to the OS which require a powerful CPU so some fragmentation is unavoidable, just as is the case when Microsoft releases a new version of Windows which will only run on the latest PCs.

This fact makes some degree of market splintering in inevitable, but Google has to work together with handset makers to ensure that those customers who jump ship from the iPhone don't end up becoming disenchanted with Android's disjointed landscape and end up returning to the more structured world of Apple.