Android and the Fragmentation FUD

With the recent announcement of the new iPhone 4, there’s been a lot of talk about how it compares to the latest run of Android devices (HTC EVO, HTC Droid Incredible, and Nexus One).  However anytime someone brings up the Android elephant in the iPhone room, there’s talk similar to “oh well Android is fragmented” or “all those apps won’t work on your phone” and other similar phrases.  I want to spend some time today discussing this issue as I see it.

Yes it’s Fragmentation

In the strictest definition of the word, the Android world is fragmented.  You have a lot of devices all running different versions of the Android OS.  Though Google and the OEMs have worked hard to lower the amount of fragmentation, it’s still there.  If you want your app to cover as many devices as possible, you have to (currently) code for Android 1.6.  With the recent announcement of 2.2, this seems like a poor call.  Newer versions of Android have new functionality that would be beneficial to older phones.  Specifically the ability to save apps onto the microSD card and keep it out of the onboard memory.

There is something to be said about the fact that Android is being developed at a fast rate that it’s hard for manufacturers to keep up.  Not only is the underlying Android OS being developed at a rapid pace, but each manufacturer has it’s own variation of the OS.  HTC has their Sense UI, Motorola has their MotoBLUR technology, and so on.  Due to this, it takes longer for these manufacturers to release the updated OS versions because they have to put their own touches on the new version before they can push it out.  In some cases they’ve decided not to do this.

The other issue is that a lot of the older Android 1.x devices had limited onboard ROM spaces, which makes updating to the newer OS even more complicated.  So while this kind of fragmentation exists and it could be viewed as a bad thing, it’s not always.

No, it’s Not Fragmentation

Why is it not a bad thing?  Because it’s constant improvement of the underlying operating system of the phone.  Sure you might be on an older device that can’t update, but that means that they next Android phone you get is going to be better than the one you currently have.  Before iPhone and Android, such a thing was unheard of.  Mobile phone makers didn’t really worry about updating their mobile OS too much, because they didn’t have too.  Now with Android, their finding that they need to stay bleeding edge to compete because people are starting to understand the game better.

Part of the reason for Android’s fast growth is Google’s understanding that they had to play catch up a little.  I’m not one-sided here, when Android 1.0 came out it paled compared to the recently released iPhone OS 2.0.  But Google didn’t rest and quickly pushed out new versions.  Apple releases their iPhone OS once a year, currently Android is on 2 releases a year.  They surpasses Apple this year (sorry fanboys, but it’s true).  Android has had multitasking from day 1, we have over the air updates, and now over the air syncing.  Also, the latest Android OS ran circles around both the iPad and the iPhone (with javascript no less, so it wasn’t even a native app).  Most of what’s in iPhone OS 4.0 has been in Android for a while (heck even the multi-tasking is done in a similar manner).

One important thing to not overlook (again) is that Google is making manufacturers think about things like future software updates, and companies like HTC and Motorola are starting to get hip to the game of continual updates of the operating system.  They might be slow on the delivery now, but with time we’ll see more releases and less lag.  Before Apple and Android, this was unheard of.  Manufacturers ignored the mobile OS because most people would just buy a new phone.  Google is making manufacturers think about the mobile OS in the same way that Apple made the carriers think about data.  After the iPhone data plans became something of a commodity, you got unlimited data at a set price.  Now equipment makers are going to have think about their devices as something that last longer than that 2 year contract interval.  Sure the geeks are still going to upgrade regularly, but the average joe isn’t going to care (they might not care about OS updates, but if their phone tells them there’s an update to install they’ll probably install it).

Google has said that they will eventually slow down the rate of Android releases in fight to alleviate the fragmentation.  They understand it’s an issue, but they also know they need to keep improving their OS in order to hold the lead they now have over Apple.

The Current State of Things

The image below was posted on the Android Police website back in January (I tried to find a new infographic but was unable to do so).

Click to Enlarge

As you can see, the fragmentation is slowly dissipating.  Many of the older 1.5 phones don’t have enough onboard memory to hold the new 2.x versions of Android.  This is a hardware issue, not a software issue.  Many of the remaining phones have seem recent announcements about upgrades to 2.x versions.  By the end of the year, I predict that we’ll start seeing less phones that are not able to update to newer versions.

Also, there is an active community of Android developers who are working to get the newer versions of the operating system to be loadable on older phones.  Of course this isn’t for the faint of heart and does require some hackery.  But the ability is there.

Things to Consider

The issue of fragmentation is a two sided problem.  It’s not just Google’s rapid development of the Android operating system but the manufacturers struggling to keep up.  Some would argue (rightfully so) that this is where Apple’s success comes from.  They couple their hardware and software so tightly together that they can really hone in on the perfection side of things.  However, this is partially what has caused them to be surpassed by Android in both functionality soon number of available devices.

I’m not going to argue that the iPhone is subpar, it’s not.  The iPhone is a superb device in a many aspects.  Android has some nice devices out as well (see the Nexus One or the HTC EVO).  But Apple isn’t the only game in the market anymore and Android, regardless of it’s fragmentation, is proving to be a good competitor.  And competition is good.  But I feel that we lose site of the advantages of the rapid development cycle, because there are advantages.  Apple fanboys would like us to forget those however (and the Google fanboys would like to forget that Apple really does have a tendency to bring its “A” game).

All in all, the competition is a good thing.  We’ll be seeing things improve on both ends and I truly believe that Android device makers will shorten the lag between new OS announcements and getting the updates to the phones.  They’ll have to if they want to remain competitive.

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