The Android OS: Splintered but Unbroken

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When we talk about an operating system being fragmented, we mean that there are lots of versions of it still in use. This is a result of older devices not getting upgrades to the latest version.  Recently, quite a few people have expressed concern at how fragmented Google’s Android OS is.

The concept of an operating system for your phone is a relatively new development as smartphones have emerged as the go-to device for more and more work and play. How well companies manage those operating systems is proving to be quite a differentiator.

Back when we all used flip phones, no one upgraded their OS and the phone makers didn’t bother to push out updates, unless there was a serious problem that needed to be fixed. We got an updated OS when we got a new phone.

Now, smartphones have adopted an upgrade cycle comparable to computers, with operating systems getting far more regular updates. That’s partly due to their increased complexity and the subsequent rise in the need for to issue fixes in the first place.

How About the Rivals?

Google’s rival Apple has handled the upgrade path reasonably well. It’s had some boondoggles, like when iOS 4 proved to be too much for old 3G phones. At the recent Worldwide Developer Conference, Scott Forstall, the senior vice president who heads up the iOS group, said 80% of iPhone customers are using iOS 5.x, the latest version, while most of the rest use 4.x.

By and large, Apple has managed to avoid fragmentation for two reasons: one, Apple faithful have a habit of upgrading when a new phone comes out, so they always have the latest and greatest; and two, Apple makes it easy on its customers, giving out free iOS upgrades to every recent iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch model all on the same day.

Microsoft’s Windows Phone OS currently has little or no fragmentation. This is because OS upgrades are widely available, so devices don’t get left behind.  That’s about to change, though, when Windows Phone 8 is released, as this version won’t run on any current handset.

Android Has Lots

Android FragmentationWith Android, things get very fragmented. Actually, shattered would be a better analogy if the OS had previously been a single platform.

It shows 64% of Android users are on the 2.3.x version, known as Gingerbread, which shipped in December 2010. Version 2.2, a.k.a. Froyo, shipped more than two years ago and holds the number two spot at 19%. All told, there are 10 different API versions on the market.

Google has defended this in a blog post, where Andy Rubin, vice president of engineering, said the company does not believe in a “one size fits all” solution. Android 3.0 was meant for tablets, and 4.0 supports a variety of screen sizes.

Still, when he says “our ‘anti-fragmentation’ program has been in place since Android 1.0 and remains a priority for us to provide a great user experience for consumers and a consistent platform for developers,” one has to wonder what the platform would look like without that program.

Last week, Google unveiled a new system designed to help device makers get the latest versions of Android onto their products more quickly.  It’s still in beta, however. 

Is This an Issue?

The view on this splintering ranges, depending on whom you talk to. Iain Gillott, president of iGR market research for wireless, says what some see as fragmentation, he sees as diversity. Selling phones with 2.3 and 4.0 allows for different price points, screen sizes, memory and other features.

“That’s the reality of an ecosystem if you want to control it that closely. If they had done that, we’d have end up with Samsung, Motorola, HTC and others all running the same software with screens the same size, which we don’t have,” Gillott said. “The good news is we got variation and competition in the market. The bad news? We got fragmentation.”

Gillott said it’s not as bad as the old BlackBerry days, when it was virtually or literally a new operating system with each revision. “You do have to do some tweaks to test for the new platforms. I don’t think there’s anyone out there saying I’m not going to develop for Android because it’s too fragmented. They can’t afford not to,” he added.

Paul Ingram, creative director with mobile app developer Mindbloom, has a different perspective. “It is a pain. It’s probably one of the biggest reasons why we’re hesitant to spend our precious startup development budget on the Android market. If we had a team devoted to understanding and navigating the ever changing Android space then it would be much more of a priority for us,” he said. That said, Ingram said only 10% of Mindbloom’s users are Android users.

The situation shows no signs of going away. Currently just 10% of Android devices have Android 4.0, but Google has already announced Android 4.1, which is set to be released later this month on a small handful of models.




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