In the world of Android phones there sure are a lot of versions out there in this very short period of time that the OS has even been released! And Google's Android OS has only been out for about 15 months, it's no wonder that critics and some of the developers are relatively perturbed by all of these different versions. Plus to top it off some of the phones are not getting the latest and greatest builds. This is either due to a lack of resources on the carrier's side to perform complete testing of the OS updates on handsets they've already shipped to make sure that they perform appropriately on their network or it's simply a means to force users who want the latest and greatest to upgrade to a different handset model. (It's more the former than the latter, but where carriers are concerned, anything is possible!) For most developers who are sticking to the core functionality within the Android SDK and not trying to build anything other than a vanilla application the multiple versions are a minor nuisance. For those developers who are really trying to weave many of the complex features in new and exciting ways, the fragmentation and introduction of new core features in the OS at this rapid pace can really be maddening.
But this isn't the real problem. To me, the bigger issue is the fragmentation of Application Stores. In this, I don't mean that you'll have applications that are built for one version of the OS and not another, but rather Google's application store is only available to the handset if and only if you meet certain device requirements set forth by Google. For example, the Archos 5 which is a portable media player that runs Android not only doesn't have the Google Market but is also missing the other Google specific applications (GMail, Google Maps, etc). This is a result of particular licensing requirement by Google that are in place in theory to make sure that the user isn't confused by some random application that wants functionality that isn't present. For example, there is no camera on the device, so Google doesn't want the user to be able to install ShopSavvy which uses the camera to scan barcodes since there is no camera. However it's an all or none proposition - don't meet the Google specs no Google Market nor other applications.
Just this morning there were posts about further fragmentation of the application store and this was from some of the providers who have Google's blessing! So why would manufacturers want to get into the Application Store business? Obviously it's about money. When a handset is sold either to a retailer or a carrier, the manufacturer gets paid. They never see another cent for that handset ever again (excluding repairs). Where as Google, the carrier and the application provider are making "easy" money. At least that's the view that Apple provides with the Billions and BILLIONS of apps served message. There definitely is truth in the fact that Apple does see a fair amount of income from the apps. However their applications aren't competing against one another on multiple different networks with different manufacturers over a range of handsets. Wow, that's a mouthful!
In the Android world, you have Motorola, HTC, Sony Ericcson, Samsung and a bunch of others manufacturers all competing across all of the different carriers. Everyone wants to not only differentiate their handsets with services and offers, thus we have lots of different versions of Android from official sanctioned ones from Google to one-offs. Since everyone is competing and there isn't necessarily a standard across all of the carriers and manufactures (partially to Google's own dismay), the revenue opportunity becomes much more limited since it has to be split in multiple ways with everyone wanting to get a piece of the action!
And then of course you have Google and some other smart developers simply giving away cool new applications for free just to help move the Android application along. For example Turn-by-Turn navigation in the 2.0 release (and it was brought back to the 1.6 release as well!). Lots of application value given away for the chance to attract more people to the platform which in turns strengthens the advertising revenue and position of Google. Not a bad gig if you can get it!
Unfortunately the users are going to have to continue to suffer while the ecosystem sorts itself out and when Google matures to the point where the platform isn't undergoing so many major shifts and modifications in such a short period of time. It's easy to iterate all the time when there is only one device on which this all lives, but once you get multiple manufacturers and carriers each with their own set of requirements ... well you get what you've got now!