A lot has been said about mobile fragmentation in the Android world which is filled with a bunch of different devices with different specifications and different versions of the Android OS. This leads to lots of exceptions in the Android app marketplace and isn’t good for consumers. That problem has been, until now, not a big issue for iPhone and iPod Touch users. While there’s been a split between iPhone/iPod Touch and iPad applications, it can be argued that they really are different platforms sharing the same OS.

But now, EA spins everyone around and multiplies consumer confusion in the App Store by creating a new fracture. They have released an iPhone 4 only version of their NCAA Football game along with a version for older models. They further add to the confusion by using the tag HD on it, something already in use by most developers as a designation for iPad applications. While I am of the opinion that these decisions are downright consumer hostile and I question EA’s motives, I also have to wonder why Apple would let them do something that causes such consumer confusion and leads to greater fragmentation of the iOS App Store.

Is the iOS a single platform or multiple platforms? Apple greatly prefers Universal applications that work on all iOS devices and suggests them to developers over having multiple versions of the same applications for iPhone and iPad. Yet in this instance they have approved the exact same app for two different models of the same platform, the iPhone. We’ve heard stories in the past of Apple rejecting iPad specific versions of apps that don’t provide extra functionality over their iPhone versions. Instead Apple have suggested that the developers create universal versions. Yet this game, an exact duplicate with just higher resolution graphics was approved, fragmenting the iPhone App Store. That confuses consumers and sets a precedent I hope doesn’t hold up.

There could be a case to be made to releasing a game that was only compatible with the iPhone 4 due to hardware specific requirements. We saw a handful of games that were only compatible with the iPhone 3GS due to processor speed or specific hardware accelerated graphics requirements. I’m sure we’ll see more with the higher power and hardware changes of the iPhone 4. But this game is not an iPhone 4 only game, there is another version of the exact same game, but for older hardware released separately.

“We do see a difference between iPhone 3G/3GS and iPhone 4. For EA, it’s important that we create our games for the unique capabilities of each platform or device including NCAA Football maximizing iPhone 4′s high quality graphics.” commented Michelle Jacob, Head of Global PR for EA Mobile when I asked for comment on the release of two different iPhone versions of the game. But to me, this just doesn’t make any sense as there’s absolutely no technical reason to create an iPhone 4 specific version of a game to take advantage of the higher quality graphics.

This is the first time we’ve seen a large developer release multiple versions of an app for different iPhone versions. The generally accepted practice is to release a single application for the iOS4 iPhone and iPod Touch platform that takes advantage of the hardware it runs on while degrading properly for lower performance devices. That leaves this as being a purely business decision and a bad one at that.

Let’s take a look at Real Racing from Firemint for an example of how developers have been addressing adding features to their applications for the iPhone 4. One universal application for all iPhone and iPod Touch devices, from a company with fewer employees than the EA campus cafeteria has. And it takes great advantage of the Retina Display on the iPhone 4 and anti-aliasing on the 3GS and degrades nicely for older devices. This is the what consumers want and it makes sense. The iPad and the iPhone/iPod Touch can logically be called different platforms. The iPhone 3GS and the iPhone 4 can not. When upgrading devices you shouldn’t be required to re-purchase apps for them to take advantage of the new hardware. This hasn’t been the practice in the past and I hope it’s not in the future.

Doesn’t this create consumer confusion? “We certainly don’t want to create any consumer confusion. We think we’re quite clear in distinguishing between the two versions of NCAA Football and giving consumers a choice.” But confusion is what we are seeing. If we look at the ratings in iTunes for the iPhone 4 version of NCAA Football, 12 of the 28 comments as of Monday evening are from users who have purchased the app for incompatible devices.

The real reason for the consumer confusion is that EA is doing something that iTunes, and therefore the App Store, doesn’t really support. There’s no filter for what you buy when using iTunes on the desktop. You could purchase any apps you wish even if you have never connected an iOS device to iTunes. When you click Buy App on the iPhone 4 specific version of NCAA Football, it doesn’t check to make sure you have an iPhone 4, it just takes the money from your account and delivers the app.

Ms. Jacob continues “If anything, we are hurting ourselves by offering two apps – our overall rankings for the title are split. But again, we feel it is important to give consumers that choice.” Sometimes choice isn’t a good thing when it isn’t done to serve consumers. And I think that’s what we have here. Consumers want choice, but not when it’s so easy for them to make bad choices. What consumers really want it convenience. It should just work and work well. This release method does not work for consumers.

The comment that they are sacrificing overall ranking is very true and makes this an even odder decision. Had they released a single application compatible with all devices and enhanced for the iPhone 4 they would have increased their rank in the top selling app lists by having all sales for a single application instead of two different apps. This is something that can lead to a waterfall effect — the higher up the top selling lists you are the more people see it and therefore the more that buy it.

iPhone 4 is not HD. And how about the odd choice to name the app with the HD tag? That’s something that has become the de-facto standard designation for iPad applications. (Even though none of the iOS devices are really HD resolution.) Adding that designation to an iPhone 4 only application is even more confusing. Perhaps EA know something we don’t know yet with the convergence of the iOS 4 for iPad and iPhone. Maybe that will lead to apps on the iPhone 4 and iPad being closer tied? I doubt that’s the reason. Probably just a inexperienced marketing person decided that was the best way to designate the special version. Bad choice.

Isn’t the Apple approval process supposed to stop bad developer moves like this? The question I keep coming back to is why would Apple let them do this? Why would Apple let EA fracture the App Store market further and confuse consumers by doing something like this — something that iTunes doesn’t fully support? I have to think that it’s a mistake or they are just testing the waters.

But isn’t this going to hurt Apple? One of the most appealing things about the iOS App Store is that once you purchase an app, it’s yours. You can install it on as many devices as you buy. When you upgrade your devices, the apps come with you. And traditionally, developers have updated applications for updates in hardware and new versions of the iPhone OS / iOS. This throws that practice up in the air. If I buy the NCAA Football for my iPhone 4, it won’t work on my iPad or iPod Touch. I have to either purchase the lower quality version which suffers on the iPhone 4, or purchase 2 versions. Neither option is good for consumers — both options are good for EA.

What is EA really doing by releasing NCAA Football like this? They are probably just testing the waters to see what direction the market will head and if consumers will be ok with this. I really hope it’s not their plan for future releases. And I hope that Apple will restrict any developer from doing this in the future. It hurts users which in turn hurts Apple hardware sales and in the end, all developers.

Are you for this method of app release? Against it? If you want to let EA know what you think of this decision, head on over to their Facebook page or Twitter stream and leave a message with your thoughts. And of course you are always welcome to leave a comment below.

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