What Android Fragmentation Problem?

By  |  Sunday, May 23, 2010 at 11:17 am

At last week’s Google I|O conference, the last session I attended was a “fireside chat” in which Google employees discussed the Android platform with audience members. Someone asked about Android fragmentation–the fact that Android is getting upgrades so frequently that there are phones powered by multiple versions of the OS for sale all at once.

The Android team member who fielded the question spent most of his time rejecting it as a valid subject of debate. He compared the situation to Microsoft releasing multiple versions of Windows in the 1990s. He said that it isn’t fragmentation if (for instance) all Android 1.6 phones are compatible. And he ended by adding that he didn’t even like to use the word “fragmentation.” The one he preferred was “progress.”

I couldn’t quite tell if the question had struck a raw nerve, or if it simply seemed irrelevant. But the gist of the reply seems to be Google’s official stance on the matter. My friend Michael Gartenberg recently visited with Android honcho Andy Rubin, who pretty much said the same thing: Android isn’t getting fragmented.

Okay, fine. As Michael says, it’s not fragmentation in the classic sense represented by Linux, in which multiple products can share the same version number yet be incompatible with each other. But that’s not terribly comforting news to anyone who just bought a brand new Android phone which lacks the latest features and can’t run apps such as Google Earth. And while it’s perfectly normal for tech products to become obsolete within months of their release, it remains very odd indeed for products that are just entering the market to run software that’s several versions old. Which is what’s happening with Android.

It’s also a little odd to hear a Google employee defend Android by likening it to the old days when Microsoft was shipping both the Windows 9x and NT platforms, as if that were a scenario that anyone would strive for.

In a sense, the Google guy who said that what’s going on is progress, not fragmentation, is absolutely right. The only reason why there are so many phones based on so many Android variants out there is because Google is cranking out meaty Android upgrades at a pace which handset manufacturers are unprepared to deal with.

Android 1.5 shipped in April of 2009; 1.6 shipped in September; 2.0 shipped in October; 2.1 shipped in December; and 2.2 shipped last week. As Google finishes new features, it rolls them out rapidly in small batches, then gets back to work on the next batch–just as it does with a service such as Gmail. But with Gmail, Google can flip a switch and push new stuff out to every user in a few hours. It even managed to accomplish something similar with its own Nexus One phone: People who own Nexuses (Nexii?) with Android 2.1 are already getting the 2.2 update.

Old-school phone makers and carriers just can’t keep up with that, which is why the Sprint EVO 4G phones which were distributed to I|O attendees–which, like the Nexus One, were manufactured by HTC–were running Android 2.1. The EVO’s hardware is impressive, but its software will feel a bit like day-old bread until it gets the 2.2 update. (HTC says that should happen at some unspecified time in the second half of this year.)

After attending the Apple bashfest that was Google I|O’s Android keynote, I tend to suspect that Google’s relentless upgrading of Android stems only partially from the company’s genetic predisposition to iterate, iterate, iterate. It’s also about the race with the iPhone. Google wants to do everything in its power to put Android in the best possible competitive situation. So it’s not going to mimic Apple’s yearly upgrade schedule–it’ll get new features in the marketplace just as fast as it can. And it won’t stop anytime soon.

Call it fragmentation; call it progress; call it whatever you like. For now, it’s a defining characteristic of the Android platform. The only way out I see is for manufacturers and carriers to figure out how to move at a pace that’s much closer to the one Google operates on. If they do, it would be a welcome breakthrough for everybody involved…

 
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19 Comments For This Post

  1. Charlie Says:

    This is a major sticking point for me in the decision on whether to upgrade my iPhone 3G to the next iPhone or Android. I really don't like the idea of having a phone that doesn't have the latest OS. I'd rather wait for Apple's once-a-year update that goes to all phones, guaranteed, than wait a carrier-determined period of time to get the already-released update to my phone.

  2. Josh Says:

    I am new to Android, but do tend to see this as fragmentation. I am on AT&T and, therefore, JUMPED at the first chance we users had at an Android phone: the Motorola Backflip. It’s nice enough, but runs 1.5. I was not too concerned about this, until recently when the ONE app I have been waiting patiently for, the Kindle app, was announced as being for 1.6 or higher. So, now, my new phone won’t run one app I desperately want. Granted, this is only Google’s fault tangentially, as Amazon could have decided to develop an app for all platforms (like the Mint app), but I am running a new phone, expecting a new app, and neither will work together. I know Motorola is planning on pushing updates for 2.1 to my model phone in Q3, but I am realistically expecting a period between the release of the Kindle app and my phone’s upgrade. Sigh. Seems almost like too many cooks in the kitchen at this point, and Google would do well to either promote and advocate for more timely upgrades or immediate release to the newest OS version, or promote more stringently the use of an API that is more universal and backwards compatible.

  3. Jerry Says:

    @Josh..
    Your mistake was buying a subpar Android product… THe Motorola backflip is as close to a Smartphone can get to a featurephone… it’s aimed at Teenagers who like to text. The ANdroid apps are a plus.. but its main attraction are the social network widgets and the keyboard for teenagers to text on..

    If you want Android .. and you are concerned about getting the latest and greatest feature .. aim high .. The target market for the backflip are teenagers who woudln’t even know what upgrading means..

  4. Charlie Says:

    @Jerry

    Josh’s choice of device is not what causes him to be at risk of running a previous version of Android.

    As I understand it, all Android devices apart from those released directly from Google (only Nexus One currently) are affected by ‘fragmentation’.

  5. john Says:

    As a developer, I do see fragmentation started to become a problem and I think it will only continue to get worse.

    Already at my company we are starting to see builds that can run just fine on 2.0 and above handsets but we can’t get the same build working on 1.5-1.6 handsets.

    Just the other day we had an issue where we had an app on android market that ran on 2.0 and above devices. The droid eris received an upgrade to 2.1 and for some reason our app runs really bad on that handset.

    I’ve numerous examples of a build running fine on one handset, then crashing on another.

    Overall google has done a good job at keeping fragmentation to a low. But, as more companeis start getting involved with making android handsets and adding their own tweaks, fragmentation will only continue to grow.

    With hundreds (and possibly thousands) of new android handsets coming to the market over the next couple years, all with their own set of quircks and features. There is no way fragmentation won’t start to become an issue with android.

  6. john Says:

    How many Android handsets are available in North America right now, I believe it’s still less than 75 handsets. Maybe even less than 50. Yet already we are seeing apps that can run on one handset but not another.

    What do you think will happen in 2-3 years when there are nearly 1,000 android handsets and even more versions of android, and the low end cheap phones are still the most popular ones that people tend to buy. Fragmentation will only continue to get worse with Android.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if Google can reduce fragmentation a bit, but for them to claim that it isn’t already happening or it won’t happen. That’s simply not true.

  7. Stacy Says:

    The claim that handsets running the same version of Android can all run the same apps fresh out the box without engineers having to make changes to their app is simply untrue.

    I have seen multiple cases of a new handset coming out and an app or game doesn’t work on that handset correctly, even though it’s running the same version of android os that other handsets are running.

    It hasn’t happened much yet, but we are seeing it start to happen more often.

  8. _somebody_ Says:

    The current fragmentation results mainly in bad android implementations by some manufacturers.
    Some remove features apps rely on and some change behaviour.
    Google needs to add a tough android certification program for manufacturers.

    Also 1.5 is pretty much dead. It can’t be supportet by most software since when it came out there was only one screen resolution. Support for multiple resolutions was added with 1.6 which is why most developers support 1.6 and above.

  9. Alvin B. Says:

    The responsibility for much of this lies at the feet of the carriers and manufacturers. The attitude carriers bring to the table is basically “You bought it, that’s the end of our responsibility” when it comes to firmware upgrades. They couldn’t care any less about the fact you’re into a 2-year contract. They WANT you to break the contract and pay the fees to upgrade early. They DO NOT want you reaching the end of your contract with a perfectly working phone, because then you’re liable to jump ship to another carrier. If they can get you on a “partial upgrade” every year, then you’re never free to leave. The way to do that is to KILL the upgrade path for old phones. 2.1 would have worked JUST FINE on the G1, the community at xda-developers proved that. But no carrier in its right mind was going to put a new OS on it. Yet, even the early adopters who bought the phone on RELEASE DAY are not yet eligible for upgrades. Most of them have bitten the bullet and paid for early upgrades. Many would not have done so if there were regular improvements to the product, and thus a revenue stream is cut off.

    Really, the “fragmentation” is due completely to this desire to make sure the next new product is better than the last. It would be like Microsoft releasing new versions of Windows each 6 months, and the PC manufacturers making damn sure it won’t work on the laptop you bought 6 months prior! Look at the uproar there was with Vista when drivers were frequently not available for what was, in some cases, over 5 year old hardware that people were complaining about. Yet we pay more for our phones now than for a basic desktop PC! And yet somehow, not being able to upgrade the firmware on a 6 month old phone is considered “ok” in the name of progress?

  10. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    > iterate, iterate, iterate

    Apple iterated iPhone faster than Google is iterating Android. There are more versions of iPhone OS per year than Android. But Apple was proactive in preventing fragmentation.

    There is less excuse for Google. They have baby Java apps running in a VM while Apple’s apps are native.

    And Apple has a tablet now and still no fragmentation.

    The problem with Android is it’s still a phone. OS updates come from the carrier who has no interest in updating you, they tell you buy a new phone. Apps are Java, like phones. There are 90 different models, like phones. They are extremely hard to update and the update wipes your data, like phones.

    That Google doesn’t address this problem is pure denial. Only 27% of Android phones run v2.1. Only the Nexus One has the v2.2 update but that is only 200,000 devices, tops, less than 1 day of iPhone sales. All the Flash talk is going nowhere because the #1 thing a Flash developer needs is installed base, hence the fiction that Flash is universal and part of the Web. It will take a full year for Flash to get onto 25% of Android phones.

    The truth is, Android is not a platform. Nexus One is a platform, Droid is a platform, the new Sprint phone is a platform. None have enough installed base to draw developers.

    I just heard an iPhone developer talk about his efforts to bring his iPhone app to Android. The C API is closed on Android, so he can’t port his app. A Java rewrite requires hiring a Java developer for $n, which requires x number of sales, which requires 100x installed base, which was more than all the v2.x phones put together. He said he was looking at having to buy more than 10-20 devices and run 50 simulators and make both v1 and v2 apps when he gave up.

    It’s actually easier to port your iPhone app to Windows. Think about it.

  11. Girindor Says:

    The only way out for the consumer is to avoid proprietary UIs such as HTC Sense. In other words: if you buy an HTC Evo or a Droid Incredible or a Droid or a Motorola Cliq/Dext or an HTC Desire etc, be prepared to run an old version of Android (especially Sony Ericsson, whose schedule for Android 2.. If you want to be kept updated, buy a Nexus One, or any future phone that is “with Google”. Much has been made of the supposed lack of updates for the T-Mobile G1, but in actual fact, because it was a “with Google” branded phone, it actually received quite a lot of Android updates quite quickly – from Android 0.9 to 1.0 to 1.1 to 1.5 to 1.6 – we T-Mobile G1 users really can’t complain…

  12. Alvin B. Says:

    “we T-Mobile G1 users really can’t complain…”…. about getting literally 6 months worth of updates on a phone that you’re on contract for 2 years for?

    See that’s my whole point… people spend $400 for a desktop computer, and you don’t expect to be told it’s obsolete in 6 months. Yet you spend that much on a phone, or now $700 for some androids, or are in a 2 year contract to cover that much cost, and it is okay to expect it to be obsolete in 6 to 18 months. Keep in mind, the G1 is only EIGHTEEN MONTHS OLD. Yes there were a lot of initial updates, but the phone is STILL BEING SOLD TODAY, and it hasn’t received any updates since it was about 6 months out. Of all phones, the G1 and early androids really COULD use 2.2, with the ability to install to SD card for example.

    I seriously am considering NOT buying another android based phone simply because I know the support is not there. I am using a computer built in 2006, but because I spent good money on quality parts, it is now running the latest Windows 7, and runs it very smoothly. Yet if you spend good money on a phone, you’re “can’t really complain” when you are told it is obsolete the day you buy it? What a joke.

    And it does NOT have to be that way. Google could AND SHOULD design Android with memory and processor constraints in mind. That’s just good design in the mobile space, and would make the new 1ghz and higher phones even more attractive because they’d perform like champions instead of “just enough”. Pieces that stretch the hardware capability, such as 3d encoding should be completely modular, so older devices can support at least SOME of the improvements of the new version of the OS. Google has CHOSEN to make sure the new versions of Android are bloated. The enthusiast community has shown that these versions will fit perfectly fine onto the older hardware. The only reasons the G1 doesn’t work well with 2.x is lack of hardware video drivers – not due to any “too large for the phone’s memory” or “too cpu intensive” issues.

    The original iPhone came out when, in 2007? And it got 2 years of updates! It continued to be updated long after the iPhone 3G came out. And the iPhone 3G continued to be updated after the 3GS came out. And, due to the limited hardware proliferation, most applications will still work just fine on a 2G iPhone. On Android, those running 1.5 based devices already miss out on a lot of applications. 1.6 itself is losing support among developers. It is too much work to continue supporting old versions of the OS, because too much changes that isn’t backward compatible. That would be OKAY if users of those devices could expect updates. But they can NOT expect that, they can expect their phone to live and die with the version of Android it came, or if they’re lucky, one version higher. But never more, and never a full two years of support.

  13. Paul Judd Says:

    I agree with the others – Fragmentation, or whatever Google want’s to call it (like their definition of Beta), is problematic especially when your ability to provide updates is dependent on the carriers (since they are done over the air style due to numerous manufacturers and lack of standards). Apple’s system is a lot simpler and less prone to problems since Apple can bypass the carrier problem and release updates themselves. Yes, that limits it’s distribution to iTunes, but it means that you don’t have to wait forever to update different models ever – you just have to release updates for models that Apple has intimate knowledge of and can finish and release at the same time.

    Comparing cell phones to computers is also not very accurate either. Updating Windows for multiple hardware platforms is a lot easier for MS for two very simple reason. First, the hardware is consistent – Most if not all computers have very predictable hardware features that MS can develop for especially when they work very carefully with the OEM part makers to ensure comparability. MS knows that their computers are going to contain keyboards and mice (very generic drivers), Intel or AMD based system boards, certain video inputs with a certain minimum resolution, and so on. And even then, Windows has long been described as being well written for certain hardware form factors like desktop and laptops – tablet PC’s never worked because of the way Windows is designed.

    That kind of predictability does not exist in cell phones where the input system has different possibilities, the interface can vary widely, the internals can be so different. The only thing that Google has with their platforms right now is that updates are speedy sue to the number of physical devices, but they are going to run into the same problems that MS had with Windows Mobile – hardware makers will resist updating people as much as possible.

    At least with Android, updates are easier – updating Win Mobile devices was like pulling teeth – but they are still dependent on the hardware maker and carrier, both of whom are not very willing to want you to keep your phone forever. Their goal is to sell you a new device for cheap to lock you into a contract. Google tried to shake this up with the Nexus One by selling it unlocked – it never worked.

  14. James Katt Says:

    Regarding carriers: Carriers have NEVER had to babysit their customers with firmware updates as with the Android. Manufacturers have NEVER had to babysit their customers, either, with firmware updates.

    And that is the crux of the problem.

    Previously, once you bought a cell phone, you bought all the problems that come with the cell phone. The only upgrade path is a new cell phone.

    Now, Carriers and Manufacturers have to SPEND money to do research and development into upgrading their existing cell phone firmware. And they are not use to doing this. And they hate doing this. After all, why can’t the customer just buy a new cell phone like in the past?

    This is where Apple has a huge advantage. Apple takes responsibility for the upgrades of its iPhone and all versions of the iPhone. After all, Apple makes the entire widget – doing the hardware and the software. The whole ecosystem is Apple’s business.

    Google, by not taking responsibility over every manufacturer’s cell phone, since it doesn’t do hardware, is disconnected from the user’s experience.

    Google is in a similar position to Microsoft, the monopolizer, who did not really care about the user experience.

  15. kurkosdr Says:

    This confirms it:

    –> Android is a software library being looted by the cellphone makers. It’s NOT a consistent OS like Windows or Ubuntu, like everybody wanted.

    Just pay a visit to Google’s Android site, and there is nothing that resembles an OS’s page, like where to get it or a feature listing. Because Android is not an OS, it’s a software library for cellphone makers. Bad.

    So, long story short. If you want to get the latest updates (and since it’s open source, you would want), stick it to Nexus and avoid the third party hacks of Motorola and Sony like the plague

  16. Xbox spel Says:

    Yeah, exactly the reason why I chose to go with iPhone. It's a complete solution, vs the nick of small cellphone manufacturers that drop their software support quicker than the transfer of cash to their accounts….

  17. Jsparco Says:

    awesome article! Although the android platform is improving, it doesn't have the secure systems as apple. Direct Response Agency

  18. Celebrity Tweets Says:

    I must have been under a rock all this time as I had no idea android was sufferoing from fragmentaion. I have owned an android device for well over 3 years now and never had any issues

  19. Carson Destiny Says:

    Fragmentation carries positive and negative comments. I think it has both strengths and weakness. The company just have to deal with the weaknesses and turn them as strengths.

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