Android Fragmentation – Truth or FUD? Hardware or Software?

November 6, 2011 in Android, Slideshow

It is often debated whether or not Android is a fragmented ecosystem. Some Android users believe that the fragmentation is media FUD. Some users believe that the fragmentation is irrelevant to consumers but to the app developers. And some other users believe the opposite and believe the fragmentation a big problem towards the consumers compared to the developers. Android fragmentation can also be split into two perspective: is it a hardware fragmentation caused by the different screen size, device types and button configuration, or a software fragmentation caused by the different modifications Android phone manufacturers do to make their phones stand out? Besides individual modifications, there was a branch in the Android ecosystem with two different versions being the dominant version: Android Froyo 2.2 and Gingerbread 2.3.x for mobile phones, and Android Honeycomb (3.x) for tablets. Google’s newest Android OS Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), announced early October in Hong Kong, aims to tackle and solve the fragmentation problem.

 

Hardware

Android runs on mobile phones, tablets as well as Google TV. Screens of all different sizes: from 2.5 inch to 4.3 inch mobile phone screens; from 5″ to 10.1″ tablet screens; and much bigger screens for Google TVs. Does this difference in range of screen size makes creating applications more difficult for application developers? Games like Paper Toss all scale well to the different screen sizes. Although it may not be a significantly more difficult, it creates more phones for developers to test against.

There is also fragmentation caused by the different device manufacturers. Although, fragmentation in this sense is good, as it gives consumers more choice in product, allowing them to choose until they find a perfect phone for themselves. Unlike Apple, which only have colour choices and memory choice, Android phones have manufacturer choice (Motorola, HTC, Samsung, Sony Ericsson etc.), phone style (keyboard, screen size, stylus, shape, colour etc.), and memory (internal and external micro SD expansion). There are also a range of phones that are only released for certain geographical markets, creating phones suited for the users of that area.

Besides the range of phones, mobile phones from the same manufacturer or series also do not use a consistent button configuration. Some mobile phones have 3 hardware buttons at the front, some have 4, some have capacitive buttons, some have a scroll wheel and many more variations. Not only does this create confusion between Android users, users may need time to get used to the button configuration. Below is a picture (from: engadget) that demonstrates the button fragmentation between the different mobile phones.

Google aims to fix the problem of button fragmentation by removing the need for hardware buttons and replacing them with standard software buttons embedded inside the Android ICS OS (from techradar):

Software

Android fragmentation is also apparent in the software OS level. Besides hardware differences between manufacturers, each manufacturer also modifies the OS UI to stand out from the standard Android OS, and to unify the range of phones from the same manufacturer. Below is a picture demonstrating different skins applied to the default Android OS:

On the left is the Sony Ericsson Xperia (X8/X10) skin, the middle the default Google Android skin (Nexus), and the right is the HTC skin.

Besides slight modifications to the OS, sometimes changes are made to the Android OS that causes it to not resemble Android at all, for example the Amazon Kindle Fire. The Kindle Fire runs on Android, but does not even have the Android marketplace.

Because of the different modified skins, new versions of the OS are not given to users as promptly as iOS updates are given to iPhone users. This is because the manufacturer has to test and modify the skin to work for the new version of the OS. This causes a delay in releasing the OS for existing phones. This sometimes causes phones to becoming several versions out of date as shown by the diagram below (from theunderstatement):

Most Android phones are at least one version behind, compared to the top of the chart, which shows iPhones consistently being on the most current version. Google also is not shown to advocate long term support for their phones as the Google Nexus One will not support ICS (as demonstrated by the chart). Comparing the Apple’s support cycle, the original iPhone was supported and updated by Apple for much longer time than the Google Nexus One.

Besides manufacturers being slow to adopt update cycles for their phones, it is not necessarily in the best interest of the manufacturer and carrier to push out updates. Although pushing out update will increase customer satisfaction, it is more profitable for manufactures and carriers to have customers buying a new phone. Once a phone is sold, manufacturers and even carriers to some extent do not earn any more money, hence it is more beneficial to them to get a new phone. This is not the case for iPhones, as Apple earn money from the apps used on the phone, and users will only be able to use the apps if they have the most recent OS update, creating an incentive for Apple to create support for previous phones for at least one data plan contract.

Besides manufacturer modifications and update problems, Android had two major versions, Android Froyo (2.2) and Gingerbread (2.3) for phones, and Android Honeycomb (3.x) for Tablets. Google created fragmentation between phones and tablets as the UI is very different between the two versions. Furthermore, Honeycomb introduced many new and updated many old features that greatly enhanced the usability of Android, such as multitasking. The two versions also look significantly different and hence reducing a unified Android experience. Android ICS aims to unify the mobile phone and tablet, as ICS will run on both phones and tablets.

 

Overall, there is no denying the fact that fragmentation definitely exists. However, frequently Android fragmentation is greatly over exaggerated in the media. Despite fragmentation happening, the experience is still pleasant and friendly, especially in the tight integration with Google products. Furthermore, Google is now starting to take measures to reduce fragmentation with ICS. Since ICS has yet to be released on a phone yet (Google and Samsung’s Galaxy Nexus soon), it is not possible to judge if ICS solves the problems of fragmentation.