Ever since the early days of Android, one of the biggest arguments against it has been fragmentation. I don’t think anyone can argue that fragmentation doesn’t exist, but the question that I’m posing is, Is Android fragmentation really that big of a problem? Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple answer.
First let’s talk about why fragmentation exists. Fragmentation exists for a few different reasons. The first is manufacturer customizations. The first manufacturer to do this was HTC with their Sense. Later, you would see many manufacturers following suit. Everyone from Samsung to Motorola was jumping on the custom skin bandwagon. These customizations brought unique looks and features to the devices and made it possible for the various manufacturers to differentiate their phones in the market.
The second reason that fragmentation exists is software updates. Unfortunately, many phone manufacturers will stop supporting their devices after a year or two. What this means, is that the new features that debut every year with the new versions of Android simply do not get updated on older devices. Updates come from the phone’s manufacturer but get rolled out by the carriers. Most of the time, the manufacturer and the carrier share responsibility in getting the update pushed out.
In the case of my Galaxy Note II, I waited and waited for my KitKat update and it never came. Sprint released KitKat for their Note II, but T-Mobile never did. I learned first hand how frustrating it can be to wait on the carrier. I had my Note II over two years. By the time I got rid of it, the Note 4 had already hit the market and been updated to Lollipop.
Now let’s discuss what Google can do to solve fragmentation. I think the first step is to make Android more like Windows. I’m not painting with a broad stroke here. When I say “make Android more like Windows”, what I’m specifically referring to is their updates. If you have a Windows PC, then you get updates when Microsoft releases them, regardless of who makes your PC. Not only that, but you can very easily build your own PC and install Windows without having to be a developer, manufacturer, or likewise. Windows comes in a one size fits all package. Android, however, has to be tailor made for your device. Sure a developer can port features from one ROM to the next, but he/she still has to go through a process to do so. If you’re not a developer, then it’s outside of your reach.
Now let’s discuss what the manufacturers can do to solve fragmentation. First of all, they can take the carriers out of the equation. I’m not sure why it has to go through the carriers in the first place, but Motorola recently did do just that, although not completely. When they announced their new Moto X, G, and E models, they stated that they would not be available from the carrier, or at least not under those names. In doing so, Motorola circumvented the carriers. Now, Motorola can choose how and when to roll out updates, not the carrier. At least that’s how it works in theory. We’ll have to see how it actually works in the long run.
Another thing they can do is support their phones for a longer period of time. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is for a techy guy, like myself, to see new Android versions pop up only to find out that you’ll never see them. I reference back to my statement about my Galaxy Note II.
Ok, so after all this I pose the original question. Is fragmentation really a problem? I don’t think the answer is quite so cut and dry. On one hand, I think manufacturer customizations are great. They are one of the reasons that Android is so amazing. They give you choice. They give you options. If you don’t like stock Android, then you can choose a Samsung phone with Touchwiz, or an HTC phone with Sense, or any other phone you like. On top of that, many features end up getting added to later versions of Android, but some customizations are overkill and add useless bloat to an already great device. For example, Samsung’s eye tracking features caused more headaches than anything. Most people kept the feature turned off.
On the other hand, when a vulnerability like Stagefright is exposed, Google is completely reliant on the manufacturers to patch the OS and push out the patch via the carriers.
Fragmentation also becomes a problem when your hardware becomes outdated. However, this is not just unique to Android. Apple also runs into this, when their older iPhones can’t run the latest and greatest version of iOS. Windows machines also run into this when the machines no longer meet the minimum requirements to run the OS. Of course, one major difference in at least this regard is that the PC can be upgraded with a newer CPU, GPU, more RAM, additional storage, newer motherboard, etc…
In the end, I personally think that fragmentation is a minor problem. If you don’t like that your manufacturer doesn’t update your phone, then stop patroning them. There are several options for you, and that is why I believe that fragmentation is not that big of a deal. You can switch your phone, and you can switch your carrier if you’re not happy. Is it ideal? No, but it isn’t a big problem either.
What do you think? Do you believe that fragmentation is a problem? Sound off in the comments below.
Great article Austin! I think that Android suffers as a platform overall because of the way developers have to support so many devices, where one device might run an app flawlessly, another might not. And I’ve always been envious of the way Apple controls the updates for their hardware, usually making it available for all their devices at once. The only way I can see this happening is Google mandating that all manufactures ship their devices with stock Android and put their custom software on the play store to be updated that way, but even then, you’d still be dealing with different drivers for each device. The only reason the carriers have so much influence is because of the way the devices are sold as well as our awesome goverment oversight entity, the FCC. This is much less of an issue everywhere else in the world. I wouldn’t mind if Google made Android a closed system as opposed to open source, that way they’d have more control over its implementation. But that’s just me
Nope, not an issue at all. It may be tougher for developers, but its an open platform. There will always be different chips, speeds, resolutions and features to worry about anyhow. That is the tough part of being open and flexible… The benefit is that is is open and flexible and you can buy the phone you want with the features you want.
I like the idea that you have that the OS should update directly, rather than having to run the gamut from Google to Hardware Manufacturer to Carrier, then to us (maybe). The delay in updates is the reason I rooted my first 2 Android devices, the G1 and the Galaxy S. I could get updated custom ROMS, but but not updates from the manufacturer and carrier.
I don’t know enough about the Android code to know how feasible it is. Windows acts as kind of like a paved road, with the hardware acting more like vehicles using it. Different Cars, Trucks, Motorcycles, etc. can all use them, as long as they are made to go on the road. This was the magic of Windows. As long as your tires (the drivers for your hardware), interface with the road properly, you were fine… I think that Android requires the Kernel to be compiled specifically for the hardware involved…
But I would like to see someone in the Android Division at Google address this.
I’ve been saying this for years now.
Yes, fragmentation exists and is a definitely problem when versions of Android that are 5 years old are still appearing on this chart in somewhat significant numbers. Don’t forget, these are phones that are active enough that the Google Play Store has been accessed on them in the past 7 days of when the chart was compiled. I get that there might be some real dinosaur users who purchased an Android phone many years ago and they have such low requirements that it still serves their purpose today but why would they be accessing the Play Store? Surely it is some third party apps that still support these ancient version?
I’m not sure I would agree that the 5 year old Android versions are showing up in significant numbers. Less than 5% are running Gingerbread or older. Only 3.4% are running Ice Cream Sandwich. Which leaves over 92% running Jellybean or newer.
Given those two are around 5 years old, I would say they are still somewhat significant numbers. Personally, I think the definition for “significant” decreases as the version gets older.
“At least that’s how it works in theory. We’ll have to see how it actually works in the long run.”
iOS devices are sold by the carrier, but updated without any involvement from the carrier. This should be completely possible on Android. It’s a political game, not a technical challenge.
“Apple also runs into this, when their older iPhones can’t run the latest and greatest version of iOS.”
This happens after 4 years, and with iOS 9, they extended this to 5 years. There is no comparison to the “commitment” to update Android phones for 18 months, which rarely actually happens.
Stop patroning them? Sure, after you spent $400 or more, fair huh?
It’s definitely not fair, but that is the only recourse we as consumers have in this regard. If people stop buying a particular brand because they stop updating then it will hurt their pocket book. I used to be a big fan of Samsung, but as you read in the article I’m not happy with the way that they update their phones. I also dislike their departure from expandable storage and removable batteries. So I have decided to stop giving them my hard earned money.
I’ll stick with BlackBerry 10, and if I can’t have that, I guess I’ll go iOS….
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