Android Fragmentation: Am I Imagining Things?

By  |  Thursday, November 10, 2011 at 9:48 am

My Technologizer column on TIME.com this week is about the ongoing problem of Android fragmentation–and in particular the fact that even very cool Android handsets get the newest version of the operating system only months after it’s available on other phones, or sometimes not at all.

At least I think that this is a problem. And when I write about it–which I often have–it comes from the heart. I own a Verizon Fascinate phone, and would love to use Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich on it. But I’m not even sure if the Fascinate, which was released just fourteen months ago, will ever get the year-old Gingerbread update, let alone ICS.

Whenever I mention the words “Android” and “fragmentation” in the same post, however, I hear from people who think I’m…well, hallucinating. They say either that Android fragmentation isn’t a big deal, or that it’s good.

As Jared pointed out to me over on Twitter, such folks have been chiming in on this new column in the comments:

The comments I’ve been reading that tell me I’m wrong, wrong, wrong are coherent and polite. I’m glad to have sparked a conversation. But they don’t convince me that I’ve been writing about a problem that doesn’t exist.

Herewith, some of the points commenters have made, and my thoughts about them:

Most people don’t care about operating-system upgrades. I brought that up in my story and acknowledged that plenty of people don’t pay attention to this stuff. In fact, it wouldn’t stun me if the overwhelming majority of Android-device owners can’t tell you which version of the software they’ve got. But even if those of us who do care are a noisy minority, we number in the millions. (And I’m fascinated by the way one of the commenters who politely told me I was squawking about a non-issue also said that he couldn’t wait to get Ice Cream Sandwich for his HTC Sensation.)

I also think that even folks who can’t tell you what flavor of Android they’ve got–or maybe even that they’re using Android, period–can benefit from new versions of the software. One of the worst things about existing versions of Android is that they’re nerdy and ungainly; one of the most promising things about Ice Cream Sandwich is that it looks like it’ll be more approachable. Wouldn’t you want as many people as possible to benefit from that?

Fragmentation is an inevitable result of the diversity of Android devices–which is a pro, not a con. I agree that the single best thing about Android is that it’s available on gadgets of all sorts from many different companies on any wireless carrier you choose. And it’s true that the greater the variety of Android devices, the more fragmented things will get. But I don’t think that diversity means that it’s inevitable that software upgrades will come to most devices slowly or not at all. Consider Windows PCs: They come in at least as dizzying an array of types as Android devices do, and yet new versions of the operating system will run on almost anything that’s reasonably modern, starting on day one.

Another thing about Android diversity: I don’t think all of it helps the platform. The various skins such as Samsung’s TouchWiz dilute the value of having one operating system available on so many devices, and they slow down the upgrade process. It would be so much better if Android simply had a top-notch user interface in the first place, and nobody mucked with it. (Truly differentiated products such as the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet are a different matter, and it doesn’t matter if they’re not on the newest version of the operating system.)

The fact that Android phones run Android doesn’t matter much–it’s the hardware that’s important. Boy, I don’t buy that. Every phone is defined by the interplay between its software, services, and hardware, but it’s the software that’s most important, and the hardware is the most commoditized part of the package. Or does anyone want to argue that an HTC Android phone and an HTC Windows Phone are more similar than an HTC Android phone and a Samsung Android phone?

Windows is similarly fragmented among new versions and old versions, and we’re okay with that. Yes, except Windows fragmentation is generally voluntary. You can upgrade to Windows 8 the moment it becomes available or cling to Windows XP indefinitely. Android fragmentation is a result of decisions made by Google, hardware makers, and wireless carriers: If you buy an Android phone today, you really don’t know much about what the upgrade situation will be six months from now.

Here’s the bottom line: I agree that many people don’t care about having the current version of Android, and that Android’s diversity makes updates trickier. But I think it’s within the power of Google, hardware makers, and wireless carriers to make everybody happy–from clueless newbies to folks who are itching to get the newest software. They just have to make it a priority. And I’d love to see clearer signs that they’re doing just that.

 
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22 Comments For This Post

  1. Mike Cerm Says:

    No, you're not imagining things. For every lame excuse I hear Google apologists deliver, such as "people don't care about which version they're running", or "only geeks care, and they can just root and install any ROM they want," I can't help but think that no one except extreme nerds has any business buying an Android phone.

    So, Google is walking a strange line. They're saying "regular people don't care", and then delivering a product that only appeals to nerds. If you really don't give a crap what phone you have, and don't like technology and tinkering, then why not just get an iPhone? With the iPhone 4 at only $100, it's not like Android really has a price advantage.

  2. michael Says:

    Mike Cerm : “If you really don’t give a crap what phone you have, and don’t like technology and tinkering, then why not just get an iPhone?”

    Hmmm. One might also say, “If you really don’t give a crap what phone you have, and don’t like technology and tinkering, then why not just get an Android phone?” The questions are identical.

    Android and iPhone are unbelievably similar. Neither require tweaking. Both run most (but not all) of the apps in their respective app store, if you get an old phone. Both run every app, if you get a new phone.

    There just isn’t any difference discernible by people without fealty to one company or the other. My gf has an iPhone, I have an Android. We can swap phones without pain (other than various account logins) because they both do exactly the same thing.

    I went with Android because at the time I was already on Verizon. She went with iPhone because she uses iTunes.

    Mike Cerm : “They’re saying “regular people don’t care”, and then delivering a product that only appeals to nerds. ”

    There is no Android phone specifically for nerds. Some have the OS without the added manufacturer window dressing. Woo hoo. How is that nerdy?

    It seems there are 2 types of people holding forth on this topic: Those who have actually used both OSs, and those who have no idea what they’re talking about. Mike Cerm is clearly the latter.

    And the author, while apparently the former, is looking at it from the perspective of someone who wants to root his phone — something very few who use Android actually bother with (just as few iPhone users bother jailbreaking).

  3. gms Says:

    Siri Not Coming to Old IPhones, Apple Says http://onforb.es/rGzJQU

    The fragmentation begins?

  4. Paul Says:

    No more than it did when other features could not be back ported into older devices…

    We are talking system updates, not specific features due to product updates

  5. TheRealCBONE Says:

    If all my apps work and I don't have any problems, what do I care if they release a new version of Android? I definitely don't want to beta test a buggy mess chock full of wizz-bang features that no developers support or that my carrier has disabled!

  6. Colin Says:

    "Consider Windows PCs: They come in at least as dizzying an array of types as Android devices do, and yet new versions of the operating system will run on almost anything that’s reasonably modern, starting on day one."

    This is true now, but in the "pre-Pentium" days, it was not always the case. I can remember taking the time to read the side of the box to see if a piece of software would run on my 486-33, or spending huge amounts of time tweeking to find 600k of conventional memory with HighMemSys etc. If you equate the state of the mobile market to the pre-Win95 days, there is a lot of similarities. This is not to say that the lessons learned from those days couldn't have been heeded better by Google and the Android team. IMO, fragmentation is real and I don't want to go through it again, so yes, I use iOS.

  7. The_Heraclitus Says:

    Market forces will do a Darwin on those companies that don't keep up…

  8. Jake Says:

    I don't have an iPhone or an Android phone, but I've researched lots of apps for different purposes. And the OS requirements are stated much more often in the Android marketplace than on the App Store. Maybe Apple just conceals the version requirements for the apps and censors all the user reviews that say "won't run on iOS 3" or whatever. Or maybe the need to know what version you have is a much bigger deal on Android than it is on the iPhone, the way it looks to me.

  9. JohnFen Says:

    I’m one of the people who honestly don’t care. I understand why some people would — these are the gadget-freaks, who always want the latest-and-greatest. I am indeed a nerd, but I am not a gadget freak. My android phone Just Works, and I have almost zero problems with it, certainly nothing than irks me and that I wish were different. Therefore, I don’t have any desire for an upgrade.

    Once something seems inadequate or broken I will change my tune in a heartbeat, but so far, it ain’t broke, so I’m in no rush to fix it.

    The whole fragmentation issue is meaningless to me. It might be a greater concern if I were an Android developer, but I’m not and fragmentation isn’t harming me in any way that I notice.

  10. Robert Says:

    I agree with you, Android phones have excellent hardware but crap software, even if people dont know which OS version they have, are they not aware of the multiple bugs that are not addressed on their phones? I own a Samsung fascinate and I must say with its 1.2 humingbird processor it runs slower than a 1980s startec phone. I thought froyo would make things better however there are other bugs which are worst than the previous version. Samsung is too busy poping out 100 new models every month they dont care about customer support. Im sick of cellphone companies treating these products like as if this is a drive by service. Its an expensive device, most laptops cost the same as most cellphones now in days. Thats the reason why im switching to Apple. Apple makes 1 Iphone, and supports there damn device, unlike Samsung, Galazxy1 ,2 ,3 1000 different models jesus.. So yes i agree, software is more important than hardware, I can run linux on a 486 and have it be faster than this stupid phone.

  11. Greg Stein Says:

    Do you require software upgrades for your microwave? Your television? Didn't think so.

    Does your phone work any worse than when you bought it? Nope. Didn't think so.

    The upgrade treadmill is for technophiles. It is not a necessary part of consumer electronics.

  12. Mike Cerm Says:

    That's not true. This is pretty much the first time that a software feature hasn't been made available to previous generation devices capable of supporting that feature. The only other example I can think of is when video editing was introduced. Their reasoning was that the processor in the 3G was just not fast enough… However, there is absolutely no reason at all that Siri couldn't work on the iPhone 4. It's being used purely as a point of differentiation.

  13. Mike Cerm Says:

    The reason no developers support the wizz-bang features is because, as a result of the fragmentation, they can't. If most devices are running 2.2 or older (which is probably still true), then developers aren't able to take advantage of all the improvements in 2.3, as doing so might break compatibility with older phones.

    An old version of Android may work for you, just like you might be perfectly happy running Internet Explorer 6. However, developers hate people like you.

  14. @lozhuf Says:

    Would you recommend that everybody stuck with service pack 1of XP? If your microwave doesnt need an upgrade why does your computer?

    Are vulnerabilities discovered & exploited on your microwave? No? What about on smartphones?

    The upgrade treadmill is unfortunately a necessity in a world where phones are connected to the internet and must support a huge ecosystem of apps. They are no longer in the same realm as other home appliances – they are now simply small computers.

    Does your phone work any worse than when you bought it? Yes, if someone takes advantage of said vulnerabilities.

  15. Paul Says:

    Most of the time when they state version information in the App Store, it is to specify that they are either:
    a) depreciating support for older devices or versions of iOS
    b) adding or fixing support for specific new versions of the software.
    c) utilize something specific to the hardware of a particular device

    The reason is simple, most people in the Apple camp tend to run the latest version more often than not since the process is drop dead simple. Either that, or people tend to have a newer device or one generation older (which tend to be well supported)

  16. decafjava Says:

    Well very interesting discussion, very mature as well-I was expecting lots of Apple/Android bashing evangelising. I personally have an iphone 4 and am happy with it and the regular upgrades. I like not having carrier cr** on it-but on the other hand I came from a Nokia featurephone which was not a fave of mine (unlike earlier Nokias). I also like some of the top of the line Android phones like my friend's Samsung Galaxy SII. I see how Android allows a range of phones, another friend just wanted a simple phone to check personal email at work and she got a low-end phone running some version of Android. No need to run youtube, google maps, xplane flight sim for mobile etc. It might run Angry Birds though.

  17. Funklord Says:

    I believe the "Find my Phone" functionality introduced for the iPhone 4 did not work on the 3GS or the 3G.

  18. Mike Cerm Says:

    Ah, you are correct… That's a pretty sh*tty move on Apple's part, considering that the 3GS is STILL being sold today. However, you'd have to be a complete fool to buy one. If you don't think a retina display, a better camera, etc, etc, is worth the extra $100 to pick up an iPhone 4 instead of the 3GS, then you have no business buying a smartphone.

  19. Dave Says:

    Can anyone list how having Android 2.1 or 2.2 has made their Android experience so much worse than 2.3. Can anyone tell me why if they don't like a custom UI they can't just replace it in a few seconds with their favorite stock-like launcher? Most people who complaint about fragmentation are Apple users who want something to harp about or technology writers who need something to write about.

    The only major fragmentation issue with be Android 4.0, but that is like saying that the creation of XP was a huge problem. All major changes in an OS like XP will cause fragmentation, but should Microsoft have just made Windows ME+? Even with 4.0, are apps suddenly not going to run on 2.3? Of course not.

  20. mikey Says:

    My Xperia has had 3 OS upgrades in the 13 months that I have owned it. But when in the US in May I looked at what toys(new phones etc.) were available there. I was surprised to see that my phine was still being sold with 1.6 OS and the sales rep was also surprised to see my phone working with 2.1. It appears that the carrier has to release the uprades because of locking, this may be where the issue really resides

  21. Vahtan Says:

    Guys, If you think that the fragmentation of Android is the main problem of this platform try to read this http://umumble.com/blogs/android_development/160/
    Believe me, that's not their main problem.

  22. Dried Fruit Says:

    I hate the constant redesigns that Facebook has undergone over the years. Just when you got used to something, they would change it and cause you to have to relearn it all over again. This is almost as bad as Google changing their page ranking algorithm, leaving every seo consultant fending for themselves whenever they do so.

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