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Android’s Fragmentation Problems Recede Slowly


Android fragmentation has long been a hot topic—for good reason. Google (GOOG) was iterating its mobile platform quickly; handset makers couldn’t keep up without investing more time, money, or both; and developers showed frustration with the many versions of Android and handset configurations. That led to various versions of Android in customers’ hands, each with different features and application support and without any guarantees of future upgrades. Now the situation is getting better.

About 18 months ago, I highlighted the problem of fragmentation and noted some steps Google was taking to alleviate it. Breaking out core Google applications from the Android platform has helped because the updated software for Mail, YouTube, and Maps, for example, are all available in the Android Market. Handset owners don’t have to wait for Android updates to get the latest version of these apps.

Google has also relaxed the pace of Android updates now that it can. By this, I mean that the company initially had to develop and mature Android quickly in order to compete—at least in terms of features—with the iOS of Apple (AAPL). I’d say that for most people, Google has “caught up” to iOS in terms of the most-used features. Differences remain, but I’d argue that they are fairly negligible. Where one finds gaps in either mobile platform compared with what the other offers, they can often be addressed through third-party software.

The slowed pace of updates has left a majority of handset owners running variations of Android 2.2 or 2.3. Google reports that of all Android devices visiting the Android Market over the two weeks prior to Sept. 2, 81.9 percent run the two main versions or a sub-version such as 2.3.3. Android 1.5 and 1.6 account for only 2.8 percent of all Android devices, while 13.3 percent still run Android 2.1.

New Android Era Began with Froyo

I’m making a distinction by lumping Android 2.2, 2.3, and 2.3.3 together. Why? As a long-time daily Android user, Android 2.2 (Froyo) brought huge improvements to the platform in May 2010. Android 2.3 and its subsequent minor point updates haven’t added as much—at least not much that users are complaining about.

Each version or sub-version of Android adds new APIs for developers to use. Even here, the last few Android updates have provided relatively little, compared to versions from last year or earlier. Android 2.3.4, not shown yet in the data, is rolling out now to the Nexus S, but includes only bug fixes and no new APIs.

One can contest my bundling of Android 2.2, 2.3, and 2.3.3. The first question I’d pose to any such challenge is: “What key functions are you missing if you’re running Android 2.2 and not a higher version?” In my opinion, the few that can be cited are not of high impact to most consumers.

Google doesn’t dictate which phones launch with which version of Android, nor does it really have any say about existing handset upgrades. These decisions are generally made by network carriers, with the lone exceptions of Google Nexus handsets. Google pushes updates directly to these smartphones as it sees fit—a key reason I bought and still use a Nexus One.

In May, Google announced the Android Update Alliance to bridge the gap between Android releases and carrier updates. Key partners include Verizon, HTC (2498:TT), Samsung (005930:KS), Sprint (S), Sony Ericsson, LG (066570:KS), Motorola (MMI), AT&T (T), and Vodafone (VOD:LN). The group promises handset updates for up to 18 months after a phone is introduced. I think it’s a bit early to assess the effort, but Justin Shapcott did just that in an insightful post at Android and Me. This chart, broken down by carrier, shows the current state of Update Alliance members.

Carriers Must Press Updates

Based on that chart, it’s clear that carriers have work to do: They need to nudge their handset partners to invest greater effort to create updates. In turn, the carriers need to test and push those updates out. However, more phones are coming out of the box with Android 2.3 or better, which will help.

The fragmentation issue looks a little dire in the above graphic. Still, I think it’s getting better, if only because I don’t distinguish much between Android 2.2 and any subsequent version. And since the situation took two to three years to create, it’s not going to disappear magically. I see less of an issue, due to the small steps Google has been taking to address it.

An additional effort has much to do with Android tablets as well as phones. Ice Cream Sandwich, the next major version of Android, will unify the platform between tablets and phones, which should ease problems as Android continues to mature.

Unfortunately, fragmentation will never be completely addressed. Android will always be fragmented by definition, as long as any handset maker can use it as it sees fit. Various screen sizes, hardware component choices, development budgets, and target price points affect Android devices and the versions of Android they run.

The only way to eliminate the problem is for Google either to cease licensing the platform and build its own devices, like Apple, or for the Android-maker to be very specific in terms of hardware requirements, as Microsoft does. I don’t expect either to happen. That’s O.K. because the fragmentation issue is less of a problem than it was 18 months ago.

Also from GigaOM:

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Tofel is a writer for the GigaOm Network.

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