Google Android is the fastest growing operating system for smartphones. Dozens of phones are available with the free and open source operating system preloaded, and Google says more than 60,000 Android handsets are shipping each day. But there’s a bit of a problem for some consumers: There are four different versions of Android, and while some are obviously newer than others, you can buy a brand new phone today with Android 1.5, 1.6, 2.0, or 2.1.

What that means is that some features which are available on a phone like the Google Nexus One from HTC aren’t available on the Motorola Droid. And some Droid features aren’t available on the T-Mobile MyTouch. And so on.

What’s more, some applications from the Android Market will only run on phones with the latest version of the operating system — and that can cause a frustrating experience for anyone that goes out and buys a new Android phone and then wonders why it can’t do everything that their friends’ phone can.

Google is aware of this problem, and according to Engadget, the company has a solution. Clearly, Google can’t demand that all smartphone makers and wireless carriers drop older versions of Android in favor of new ones — this is what happens when you don’t build your own equipment the way Apple does. But Google does build many of the best apps for Android. And that’s where the company still has some control.

Engadget reports that Google is going to separate some of the core functions of the operating system into downloadable apps. That way users will be able to get the latest goodies from Google from the Android Market without waiting for their wireless provider to offer an operating system update.

For instance, Google recently launched a utility called Gesture Search that lets you search your phone by drawing letters with your finger. This is the sort of feature that could easily have been built into the OS. But by offering it as a standalone application, Google was able to easily offer Gesture Search to Android 1.6, 2.0, and 2.1 users. As far as I know, it’s still not available for Android 1.5 — which suggests that there are still some minimum requirements for this application.

With that in mind, Engadget suggests that Google will focus on unbundling some of its core apps in the next few versions of Android — which means existing Android users might not reap all the benefits. But if you buy a phone running the Froyo or Gingerbread flavors of Google Android in the future, you might not have to worry so much about whether your wireless carrier will offer timely software updates — because if Google pushes out a new software keyboard, an updated version of the phone dialer, or Google Earth, you may just be able to download them from the Android Market.

Brad Linder

Brad Linder is editor of Liliputing and Mobiputing. He's been tinkering with mobile tech for decades and writing about it since...