Android Fragmentation: You Can't Discuss a Problem if One of the Parties Denies It Exists

By  |  Tuesday, June 1, 2010 at 12:30 pm

I keep expressing concern over the fact that companies that make and sell Android -based phones have trouble keeping up with the pace of Google’s OS updates. I’ve been known to describe the situation–different phones running different versions of Android–as “fragmentation.” Apparently, I’m either confused or cynical. Maybe both!

Over at the  Android Developers Blog, Android Open Source & Compatibility Program Manager Dan Morrill is saying that “Android fragmentation” is nothing but meaningless fearmongering on the part of drama-queen pundits.

The thing is, nobody ever defined “fragmentation” — or rather, everybody has a different definition. Some people use it to mean too many mobile operating systems; others to refer to optional APIs causing inconsistent platform implementations; still others use it to refer to “locked down” devices, or even to the existence of multiple versions of the software at the same time. I’ve even seen it used to refer to the existence of different UI skins. Most of these definitions don’t even have any impact on whether apps can run!

Because it means everything, it actually means nothing, so the term is useless. Stories on “fragmentation” are dramatic and they drive traffic to pundits’ blogs, but they have little to do with reality. “Fragmentation” is a bogeyman, a red herring, a story you tell to frighten junior developers. Yawn.

Android fragmentation is apparently a hoax. So Morrill drops the topic and segues into an (interesting) discussion of how the Android team squashes bugs and resolves compatibility issues.

Would it help if I stopped calling it fragmentation? Done. Let’s call it old versionitis. Or behindism. Or software catchup syndrome. Or anything else you like. But it’s not nutso melodrama to note that it’s very common for current Android phones to run versions of the OS that lack the latest features and aren’t compatible with noteworthy new apps. AT&T  is currently advertising up a storm for the Backflip–an Android 1.5 phone which can’t run Google’s own Goggles and Earth apps; Sprint is about to release the EVO 4G, a phone that runs an older version of Android than the aging Nexus One.

Those aren’t catastrophes. But they’re also not non-issues, and it’s not impertinent for bloggers to bring them up.

It’s possible to make the case that short-term fragmentation deployment of multiple versions of Android is a worthwhile tradeoff to get Android as good as it can be as quickly as possible. Google presumably believes this to be the case, since that’s the strategy it’s pursuing. I’d love to see the company explain its thinking. But first it needs to get its head around the idea that there’s an issue here worth explaining.

 
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27 Comments For This Post

  1. Timmy H Says:

    You are absolutely correct. I have a 1 year old HTC Magic which is supposedly a ‘Google experience’ device, which I was led to believe meant that they alone control the release of upgrades. Back in November it upgraded itself over the air from 1.5 to 1.6. Since then I have been waiting for 2.0 or 2.1.

    HTC claim to not know when it will be upgraded and my mobile operator doesn’t know.

    What I know is that if it hasn’t upgraded soon I will be swapping it – for an iPhone HD! Google has blown it for me.

  2. ediedi Says:

    Denying it is bad. But also, they are in a position of not being able to admit it, if they did then it would be clear for everyone that one shouldn’t buy an android device unless it runs the latest version.
    Also, that practically means they (along with the device manufacturers) are duping consumers.

  3. Steven Says:

    I think if you had read the entire post, you would realize that Google knows there are issues, but that fragmentation is just a stupid buzz word used to discredit Android and make developers leary of coding. If you read it, he actually talks about how everything is backwards compatible, so you can always make your app work on 1.5 and it automatically runs on everything up to the latest release. They are also working with OEMs to help them get updates out faster. You have to remember that OEMs aren’t used to dynamic, fast changing updates and upgrades. This is a new thing to them, and it will take time. Also, notice that the main reason he dismisses fragmentation is that everyone has their own definition, and most of them are completely incorrect or irrelevant. The rest are over played. If a developer needs to use newer APIs then they can’t code for older versions, but that’s the way it goes. Now that Android is maturing, OEMs will ensure that more capable hardware comes out, which means it can be guaranteed to be able to run newer versions. Also, I read somewhere that Andy Rubin expects Android to have only 1 major release per year in the near future, as they are already slowing down the rollout of major updates. They needed all these fast paced major updates to get phones to support many missing capabilities and get the OS robust and stable. Its actually doing really well, and I’m sure we will begin to see a lot better upgrading options in the future. I think your post was a little immature and off the mark, with all these things in mind.

  4. John Baxter Says:

    “drama-queen pundits”. That has a nice ring to it. I feel a tee shirt or sweat shirt approaching.

  5. techclicker Says:

    While Android fragmentation (let’s keep calling it what it is) does exist, I’m not convinced people should perceive it as a problem. When you buy a phone, you should do so with the understanding that you’re buying both a hardware and software platform. The limitations that arise from both as technology progresses are not a good reason to complain about the OS or its development cycle.

    It is OK for Microsoft to continually release new and improved versions of Windows and not give those updates away to people who own previous versions, even if some new software won’t run on the old version of the OS? New PC OS’s releases don’t have to run on old PC hardware, there’s always minimum system requirements. People don’t call Windows a fragmented platform given the three versions of it (XP, Vista, 7) widely used today. Sure, the release cycle of Android OS versions is accelerated compared to most PC OS’s, but I don’t understand why people expect the capabilities of their phone’s software to be augmented over time beyond that of routine bug fixes.

  6. thelazzyone Says:

    I agree that there is fragmentation as well but if an OS is open for all to use at their discretion. That is something that is really hard to stop unless you slow down your releases which I read today that Andy Rubin said they are planning to do.

    I honestly don’t think Android had the luxury to do that in the beginning because it had to play catch up. I don’t know if you remember 1.0 on the G1. Well, I know they don’t want to remember it because it was not fully baked.

    Now to some of the examples you used:

    For instance, you used the Moto Backflip as an example. I would say that AT&T is actually selling that device not as a smartphone but as a high end feature phone. Which I think many companies may try to do more of. You can also note that the Motorola Backflip also doesn’t have the Google Search Widget either. It was replaced with Yahoo by Moto or AT&T.

    Now the Sprint EVO as you stated doesn’t run Froyo (Android 2.2) but neither does the Nexus One yet “offically”. The released version is not the official version as it was pulled from the servers.

    I am quite sure the N1 will get Froyo before the EVO because it runs a stock OS but HTC needs to also work on pushing out their releases in the timely manner. Moving from 2.1 to 2.2 is just a point release, we are not talking about a major release which I can understand could take sometime depending on how much has changed.

    To wrap up, even if they slow down their releases a company can still push out a phone with 1.5 or 1.6 running on it. It is really their choice as a company to use what version of the OS they decide.

  7. Veggiedude Says:

    The strength of Android is that no one company really owns it, thus it is free and open. Unfortunately, it is also it’s biggest weakness.

  8. Josh Says:

    No, you’re right to call it “fragmentation.” That’s exactly what it is. Just because Dan Morrill has trouble with the semantics doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem.

  9. Dennis Forbes Says:

    “But it’s not nutso melodrama to note that it’s very common for current Android phones to run versions of the OS that lack the latest features and aren’t compatible with noteworthy new apps. ”

    Every single review of every single Android device starts by pointing out the version of Android the device comes delivered with, and what the upgrade plans are for it.

    There is no uncertainty or surprise there.

    The Xperia X10, for instance, has generally flopped among the tech crowd because it comes delivered with Android 1.6. The truth, however, is that the vast majority of marketplace apps target 1.6. For Joe Average that is perfectly fine, and I strongly doubt that they bought the phone expecting to run Google Earth or Google Goggles.

    You and other “fear monger” blogs absolutely overstate the impact of this, trolling up a storm for attention. The mere way you head into this entry couldn’t be more petulant and asinine, but that’s par for the course of this particular topic.

    Android is evolving quickly. It will not stop to wait for stragglers.

  10. Harry McCracken Says:

    I’m not claiming that fragmentation is a huge, catastrophic problem. To repeat: I’m even willing to be convinced that it’s not an issue at all. But the notion that it’s not even worthy of discussion or is a fake controversy jiggered up by pundits is kind of silly. For Google, it’s a blind spot.

    Read my comments if you think there are no smart tech consumers who think it’s an issue.

    As for the theory that I’m trolling–there are 99 other topics I could write about that would be more likely to attract more attention. I write about this stuff because I’m interested in it…

    –Harry

  11. Dennis Forbes Says:

    “Read my comments if you think there are no smart tech consumers who think it’s an issue.”

    Most of those “smart tech consumers” are iPhone devs desperately hoping that their App Store compass or level makes them rich.

    The prospect of Android gaining marketshare frightens them.

    However constructive your entries might intend to be, you’re pandering to the anti-Android crowd. These aren’t people looking for a solution, but are simply people looking for talking points.

  12. Nathan Says:

    If you want to avoid the “fragmentation” issue, start forcing OEMs to release phones with unlocked bootloaders. This would interested parties to upgrade the software at their discretion, pursuing the newest greatest features when ready without waiting for the OEM to update their (probably already obsolete) UI Skin for the newest API.

    It’s possible to run Eclair/FroYo on a G1, but you have to update the device firmware. It’s not impossibly hard, but I wouldn’t ask the average iPhone user to do it either. If you can’t jailbreak an iPhone and/or don’t see the point, you’re not going to be updating firmware on a G1 or gaining “root” either.

    For the average person who falls into these categories, an iPhone/Moto-Backflip/etc really *is* just a fancy featurephone. As such, it really *isn’t* an issue whether or not the phone can be updated to the newest Android version. When was the last time you saw a LG Vu/Env/Etc user complaining that the software wasn’t upgradable?

    The only user that cares about whether or not Android is going to be upgradeable is that rare gem who is poor/cheap and also a gadget nerd who wants to live on the bleeding edge.

    If this is really an issue, where is the post about iPhone fragmentation and the poor, poor iPhone users who can’t understand why they don’t get subsidized upgrades every year to the newest iPhone HARDWARE AND SOFTWARE platform?

    Jesus! You’d think that Apple sends you people free iPhones…along with instructions on how to cover anything Google-related.

  13. AdamC Says:

    My take is the manufacturers are more interesting in selling the product rather than update the software. Why update when they can make money selling the hardware whereas they get zero for updating the software which results in zero hardware sale. The problem will always be there and it is the biggest weakness in the android phones so expect no update and be happy with whatever you purchased i.e. the android phone.

  14. Frac Says:

    @Dennis Forbes
    So saying ‘Android is evolving quickly. It will not stop to wait for stragglers.’ does not prove the articles point?
    Of course you know a lot about Android, Android phones and version history. But does everyone? No they do not.
    The problem of fragmentation is real enough when vendors play fast and loose with their marketing. They make no mention of app compatibility in their ads or mention system upgrades or anything else that may prevent a sale when the punter is interested in the latest and greatest piece of kit. You know… the poor old consumer, the poor guy who(figuratively) puts his money on the counter? That’s where fragmentation hurts the consumer. To deny it exists is to take the same arrogant stance as the Android team.
    To blame the issue on ‘ “fear monger” blogs absolutely overstate the impact of this, trolling up a storm for attention.’ and ‘iPhone devs desperately hoping that their App Store compass or level makes them rich.’ is about as juvenile as denial gets.
    This is Zuckerman style ‘You’re all stupid’ arrogance. Well done.

  15. Jocca Says:

    This problem with fragmentation will not happen with the iPhone because only one maker is involved in the entire production of the widget, so that every iteration of the iPhones can be updated in a timely manner, unless otherwise indicated by Apple (version 4.0 will not be able to run on the first generation of iPhone). The beauty about this model is that every iPhone developers need only concentrate on one version of their applications and have them run on all the existing iPhones. Such will not be the case with Android developers. I do not think the iPhone developer should be worried about being taken over by his Android counterpart anytime soon.

  16. Elderon Says:

    Ill prob be thumbed down as most people on this site seem to be using older phones.

    There is no fragmentation. new phones are fully backwards compatible with all apps. What is happening now is that people with old phones are having the hardware show it’s age. You don’t expect a 486 pc from 17 years ago or whatever to play high def video, would you? so why do you expect your old phone to be able to do all the new features? The phone doesn’t even have to be that old. Did people bother looking at the phones specs? These are mini computers now not just phones. If you bought..say the eris it’s a lot less powerful compared to the droid that was also out at the same time….

    So I guess people just need to be aware that when purchasing a phone they need to look at the specs and plan on how long the phone should hold up based on that. A lot of these older phones don’t have graphics processors or at least very good ones capable of pushing 3d ,don’t blame that on fragmentation that’s your phones limitation. This is the type of thing people are not getting through there heads.

    Also as far as I know, while there are many many android phones there were only 2 “Google experience” phones. Those were the Motorola Droid and the HTC Nexus one, that’s it.

    Seriously bloggers and tech sites need to get a grip and stop writing fud to scare people away. Are you guys getting paid buy apple and MS to write this crap?

    Maybe I should write articles about phone fragmentation in the normal house desk phone because my ma bell rotary phone doesn’t support video chat and I don’t see why not…. (exaggerated analogy).

    yeah yeah I’m sure this will be ranked down, people can’t stand the truth when it differs from what they “think” is right…*sigh*

  17. Dennis Forbes Says:

    @Frac,

    “is about as juvenile as denial gets.’

    Hardly, chum. It’s right on the money.

    Android fragmentation is something that seems to be far more of a “concern” (cough cough) among the anti-Android crowd than it is among actual Android developers or users. I fully expect Daring Fireball to link to this piece any moment as Gruber has such a strong concern for a robust Android ecosystem.

    “They make no mention of app compatibility in their ads or mention system upgrades or anything else that may prevent a sale when the punter is interested in the latest and greatest piece of kit.”

    No one buying a Motorola Backflip is looking for the latest and greatest device: It’s targeted at people who more likely would have bought a feature phone. They don’t even seem to mention the whole apps thing at all, but instead push it as a “this is what you get” phone where Android is almost incidental, targeting the sort of people who might buy a Microsoft Kin.

    Nonetheless, even the Backflip is on the queue to be upgraded to 2.1 or higher, as is virtually every Android phone every sold short of the G1.

    Evo 4G buyers are buying the latest and greatest, which is why it’s scheduled to get 2.2 just after (or at) release.

    No one has ever said that every Android phone is equal, nor should it be. Guess what – you can’t do all the things on a 3G that you can do on a 3GS. You won’t be able to do all the things on a 3GS that you can do on a 4. You can’t do all the things that you can do on a 3GS or a 4 that you can do on an iPad. And on and on.

    “So saying ‘Android is evolving quickly. It will not stop to wait for stragglers.’ does not prove the articles point?”

    No, it doesn’t at all. The only people desperately hoping for Android to stop improving so quickly are people who would rather Android didn’t exist at all. However 2.2, 2.3, 3.0, and on don’t stop the many, many thousands of Android 1.6 apps from running brilliantly on anyone with 1.6 or higher on their handset.

  18. AlfieJr Says:

    the Android platform right now is definitely fragmented in several senses of that word, and whining about semantics is sooooooo silly.

    one reason is legit – the platform is growing very very fast technically right now, filling in its gaps. but that will inevitably slow down and create a more stable environment in a year or so once it matures.

    the other reason is the branding by various OEM’s and telcos, competing with each other with proprietary top level UI skins and trying to force users to buy their proprietary services. that isn’t going to stop. after all, they WANT to make it inconvenient/costly for you to switch to a competing OEM/telco’s Android product (and they would rationalize they are just copying Apple’s “walled garden” strategy there). let’s call that a “fenced garden.”

    of course for the Android true believers a fenced garden would be heresy. it’s not “open”! but they have yet admitted it is happening. Dan Morrill et al are still in the denial phase.

  19. Dennis Forbes Says:

    “My take is the manufacturers are more interesting in selling the product rather than update the software”

    Undeniably true.

    For upgrades to come at a consistent pace, consumers need to accept some cost for upgrades: buying a phone doesn’t come with a lifetime entitlement to upgrades, and it’s just normal business sense that the vendor wants to move onto the next big thing.

    If HTC could charge $25 or whatever to upgrade those old Heros to 2.2, they might be more inclined to actually do it in an expedient fashion.

  20. Dennis Forbes Says:

    “of course for the Android true believers a fenced garden would be heresy. it’s not “open”! but they have yet admitted it is happening. Dan Morrill et al are still in the denial phase.”

    Your argument is ludicrous. Another iPhone guy who just doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

    Of course the vendors try to individualize and make a better experience. HTC doesn’t want to make phones that are mirrors of Motorola, and neither want to be like Samsung. HTC’s Sense UI, for what it’s worth, is an excellent UI that is far closer to an iPhone’s elegance than base Android. Haven’t tried MotoBlur but I’ve heard that it sells to some people.

    None of them have anything to do with the applications. There is nothing that locks you into the phone beyond maybe that you like it?

    Though of course performance and other attributes of course vary (that’s what’s so excellent about the platform, going from mediocre underpowered crudulence just over a year ago, to an incredible array of top notch devices now). Some phones have much better cameras. Some have flashes. Some have more powerful flashes or more memory. Some have more powerful graphics units (peaking at the incredible Samsung Galaxy S coming out shortly). That’s the excellence of competition.

  21. KenC Says:

    Nathan said,”If this is really an issue, where is the post about iPhone fragmentation and the poor, poor iPhone users who can’t understand why they don’t get subsidized upgrades every year to the newest iPhone HARDWARE AND SOFTWARE platform”

    Dude, up to now, three generations in, there has been NO fragmentation of the iPhone platform. They all can run the latest iPhone OS, and updates are braindead easy, as you are notified when you sync thru iTunes that a new update is available. And yes, they are FREE!

    As for hardware, I don’t think anyone was talking about that in the Android fragmentation topic, but if you insist, AT&T gave a subsidized upgrade from the EDGE iPhone to the 3G one. When the 3GS iPhone came out, if you were on one of the more expensive plans you got a subsidized upgrade when it came out, otherwise you waited an additional 6 months.

    It’s CLEAR that you know very little about the iPhone even though it has been in the market since 2007. Have you been living under a rock?

  22. Frac Says:

    Oh come on!
    @Dennis Forbes
    ‘However 2.2, 2.3, 3.0, and on don’t stop the many, many thousands of Android 1.6 apps from running brilliantly on anyone with 1.6 or higher on their handset.’

    You gotta be kidding. My Nexus One has huge problems with a variety of apps released before the Nexus. Formatting for differing screen sizes is atrocious, screen scrolling problems, colour reproduction, totally bizarre text reproduction, freezes/unresponsive behaviour… I could go on.
    OK, lets replace ‘being in denial’ with ‘How can you be so obtuse?’

    I get it, you see no problems of fragmentation, so the problem doesn’t exist and anyway it’s just FUD spread by envious iPhone users and unimaginative no hoper App Store devs with time on their hands for mischief.
    You sound like a phone shop owner who treats their customers with knowing disdain. You know the right questions will mean you have to dissemble to complete a sale but you’re not going to help them out of their misconceptions.
    Like I said before, Zuckerman style arrogance.

  23. J. Martin Says:

    I guess I find some of the arguments about Android fragmentation strange. When people bought a phone with 1.6, they didn’t even know what features would be in 2.0. So are you telling me that now a large part of them are upset that they don’t have what they didn’t expect in the first place?

    Same argument with newer apps in the Market (like Google Earth). How many of the people buying 1.6 Android phones right now will get home and say “Oh no, I bought this phone to use Google Earth!” It just doesn’t seem at all likely to me.

    Won’t it be a common occurrence that some people will intentionally buy phones that are cheaper, which are also less powerful, and missing some features by running 1.6? Isn’t that a strength of the platform, that it’s not “one size fits all” and not “one price fits all”?

  24. Dan Says:

    “Because it means everything, it actually means nothing, so the term is useless.”

    Ah, yes. You keep saying “Forest”. There is no forest here, only trees. What is this forest you speak of?

    If Morrill can itemize the many different things that people may mean when they use the word fragmentation, it seems at least disingenuous to then claim that those issues aren’t issues. The term need not be narrowly defined, treat it as an umbrella topic. There are most definitely issues with OEM rollout of updates, UI variances and API inconsistencies. Discussing such, even under an umbrella term, is not fearmongering, it is not imaginary, and it is not unwarranted.

  25. tehpeng Says:

    I’ll skip the “you can always flash a new ROM on your phone because it’s open source” argument entirely…

    I have a Nexus One and a myTouch3g. I have identical set-ups and identical apps… I’ve never had a compatibility issue with either, and besides a slightly different layout on the myTouch it’s pretty much the same.

    This is no big deal. It’s simple for devs to make apps backwards compatible, and simple for you to upgrade your own OS. If this were Apple it would be one thing, but it isn’t. You’re free to put NetBSD on your droid if you feel like it.

    If you aren’t tech-savvy enough to flash a rom you likely have no idea what version of android you have, and definitely don’t care. If you know enough about this to take an issue with it just fix it yourself. That’s the point of linux.

  26. Angela Hey Says:

    Fragmentation tends to happen with open platforms – like UNIX and Linux. However, their advantage is that they are platforms of innovation. UNIX brought great workstations from Sun, while Microsoft stuck to PCs. Linux has enabled affordable desktops and servers, and also enabled developers to make mobile Linux devices, routers, etc. Android will enable many different innovations – but don’t expect all versions to remain the same.

  27. @AndroidGold Says:

    I'd say this is why open-source ROM chef communities like @cyanogenmod seem so interesting.

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