By Harry McCracken | 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:
— Jared Newman (@OneJaredNewman) November 10, 2011
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.