Android Fragmentation: Myth?

Android is under rapid development. Since its initial release in October 2008, versions 1.0, 1.5, 1.6, 2.0, 2.01, 2.1 and 2.2 have been released. And Google, Android’s developer, has left it up the phone manufacturers to port the newest release to their devices. This has led to many devices being left behind when a new version of Android is released. 30% of Android phones owned by consumers still have a 1.x version of the operating system. Yet this is down from May 2010, where 1.x devices made up 60% of the market.

With so many devices running different operating systems, many fear that Android as a platform will fail due to fragmentation. Newer applications will be released that consumers, who bought their phones only a year before, will be unable to run. An example is the official Twitter client, which requires version 2.1 or higher. However, while Android fragmentation is a cause for worry, the fear of it is largely overblown. Here’s why:

1. 2 year contract

The phone market is by its nature a field of rapid change. In the United States of America, two year contracts are the standard way to purchase phones. So, for most people, the upper bound for how long they keep their phone is two years. Then the consumer will probably upgrade to a more modern device. Two years is not an unreasonable length of time to support a device. Yes, the T-Mobile G1 was released less than two years ago and is stuck with Android 1.6, but I would argue that is an exception. even when it was released, it was a lower end device. It’s specifications are just too low to allow for a strong experience with more modern releases, something that most higher end Android phones don’t need to worry about. Even still, the community has managed to port 2.2 to the device.

2. Standard Processors

There are not that many processors being used in higher end Android phones. You have the OMAP of Motorola’s devices, the Snapdragon which is probably the most common in today’s devices and favored by HTC, and, recently, Samsung’s Hummingbird. Android has to be compiled for each different processor in a slightly different way. But it is possible to port the most recent version of Android to a phone that doesn’t have it if another phone with the same processor has the most recent version. Because the operating system is open source, other manufacturers are able to take that build and port it to their devices. So with only a few processors, porting is fairly easy.

3. Phone manufacturers are getting better at upgrades

Before Android, phones could be expected to take at most a single operating system upgrade in their lifetime. Android is different. A consumer expects for high end Android devices to have the newest operating system on it, even if the newest version was released a year after the device. This update cycle is something that manufacturers are not used to. As with anything, time and practice improve performance. Most manufacturers have shrunk the cycle from release to update significantly. Android 2.2, the most recent version of Android at the time of writing, had 20% of the market in three months. Android version 2.1 took six to reach the same point.

4. consumer backlash

Samsung’s Behold II, which was initially supposed to get Android 2.0, was finally updated to Android 1.6 in June 2010. And the 2.0 update was completely dropped. Samsung has taken heavy flak from media and consumers alike, and now they are being sued over their failure. It is telling that the most popular manufacturers all update their higher end phones to new operating system versions. Not doing so can make you extremely unpopular.

Android fragmentation is likely to be a problem for a while yet. Android’s Andy Rubin claims that eventually new operating system releases will happen once a year, but until that happens many phones will keep having old versions on them. But you mostly only need to worry about your phone never getting an update an budget phones. And most applications that budget phones can run are likely supported by the older operating systems. Don’t worry too much about fragmentation. It is an easily avoidable phenomenon for those who care, and those who don’t will probably never notice it.