Android Fragmentation and What Google Can Do About It

iOS 6 Adoption 12 DaysChitika ad network’s stats on iOS 6 adoption between September 18 and October 1 should make Apple users happy. In fact, they have every right to taunt their Android friends.

For right now the sad truth for Android fans is that their fragmentation persists, while Apple customers needn’t worry this will ever be an issue for them.

A Little History

Apple is great at building operating systems. They have a long history of creating robust products like Mac OS, originally introduced in 1984 as System Software to run the first Macintosh computers. Fast forward 23 years, and Apple reinvents the smartphone and the mobile operating system with the release of the iPhone and iOS.

Apple updates iOS each year. In the scant weeks since it was released on September 18, it’s been adopted by almost 60 percent of iPhone users, 45 percent of iPad users and 39 percent of iPod users. Was a big marketing pitch behind it? No. Apple just rolls out the update and politely tells users it’s available.

Can Google do the same thing? No.

Google and partners released the Android OS in September 2008 as an alternative to iOS. The first versions were so ugly and sluggish you couldn’t even compare them with Apple’s product. And though Android’s improved, an ecosystem of dozens of devices made by dozens of manufacturers, each seeking to differentiate itself, led inevitably to fragmentation and compatibility issues cropping up. Although its interface was revamped with Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0 and Jelly Bean 4.1, fragmentation remains Android’s biggest problem.

Google’s Fault?

Since Android is Google’s brainchild, can we blame it for this? Yes, but not entirely.

When Google promised to deliver an open source mobile OS, its partners rapidly adopted it, but soon decided Android in itself wasn’t enough and its interface needed improvement. They may have been right, but their buggy, sluggish and ugly solutions like Sense UI and WizTouch soon divided the landscape.

You don’t have to be a tech guy to understand that it takes time to modify an open source OS and put your own interface on top of it. This is what Samsung, HTC, Sony, LG and others are doing. The real, untouched version of Android runs perfectly fine, but only on Google devices: Nexus One, Nexus S, Galaxy Nexus and Nexus 7 Tablet.

And what happens when a new Android version is released? Devices that use untouched, original Android get it in just a few weeks or less. Other manufacturers, the ones that like to put their own interface on top, update their devices months later — five or six months later, if not more.

Taking this approach with an open source platform isn’t normal. That’s some why users end up hating Android devices. Meanwhile Apple users are happy to use their perfectly optimized OS, which doesn’t seem sluggish and receives updates fast.

Android Fragmentation Oct 2012Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich is a about year old, and stats from the Android website show that nearly 24 percent of Android devices use it. The Jelly Bean update runs on less than 2 percent. So almost 12 months after a major update, 74 percent of Androids run older versions.

Google’s Solution

Google unveiled its solutions during this year’s Google I/O. Without mentioning “fragmentation,” the company said a Platform Development Kit for chipset vendors and other hardware partners would be available two to three months ahead of each major Android release. This way, OEMs would have access to updates version months before it’s even announced. By  providing the PDK early, OEMs should be able to focus on testing and updating their devices, and eliminate the need for all of their customization.

Of course the key phrase here is “should be.” Now, we’ll have to see how they do.

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Images: Wikimedia Commons, Chitika

7 Responses to “Android Fragmentation and What Google Can Do About It”

    • I’m afraid the platform development kit is only available for android hardware developers and chipset vendors. I’ve seen some new devices being released with the latest version of Android(or one version before) so I guess this could be a small sign that this new dev kit is working.

  1. The issue of fragmentation is an issue of profit margins and not technology. Samsung and others make money off selling devices to retailers. They also make money customizing (some would say bastardizing) standard versions of the Android OS. They don’t make money providing free updates to consumers.

    However, there is a strong disincentive to provide updates because doing so costs manufacturers money in terms of engineering and support. Once device manufacturers ship the product to retailer, every new dollar spent on support eats into their current profits. On top of that, device manufacturers DO make new revenue by having consumers buy the shiny new Android. So they have every incentive to get you to buy a new phone. The manufacturers aren’t being nefarious they are just trying to maximize profits and there are profits in hardware upgrades not software support.

    In my opinion, until Google fixes the profit motive for third party manufacturers, brings the complete ecosystem in-house (like Apple) or somehow extracts binding, long-term commitments from manufacturers then Android is doomed to be forever fragmented.

    If someone sees it differently, I would love to see a counterexample.

  2. Primo Sabatini

    Yes, but I think this is a bit of an apples to oranges comparison (pun at no extra charge). Apple is in a sense monolithic. They design the hardware and software and as is the case with the Google devices, it’s easy to rollout the updates. Exactly how many choices does a consumer have for iPhones compared to the number of Android based mobiles? Apple also doesn’t license iOS for non-Apple hardware, but Android does run on devices other than Google’s. If Google did control what third-party manufacturers could design then why choose HTC over Samsung or some other brand? Note, however, that those developing the Nexus brand must follow Google’s specifications.

    Perhaps the fragmentation is due to a poor interface design if manufacturers are actually modifying Android source rather plugging into an interface. Google, with the Nexus devices, behaves exactly as Apple, so one would assume that if having the lastest Android OS is of utmost importance, then sales of Nexus devices would be greater than all other models.

    I’d rather not pay for an over priced Apple model especially when the technology becomes outdated so quickly. I’m not sure having the lastest version of Android is as important as the device efficiently running. For me the biggest complaint is with manufactures installing uninstallable bloatware.

    In the end it is about choice. You can choose your one Apple model or you can select a low to high-end device running some version of Android.

    • The issue of fragmentation effects all android users because app developers instead of developing to a single platform must develop and test across hundreds of permutations. Now if developers have a simple app or extensive resources then this might be a non-issue but apps are getting more powerful every day and expectations grow. This is a real issue for developers and therefore a real issue for android users.