July 21, 2010
There are as many definitions of fragmentation as there are smartphones on the market, but no matter how you slice it, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG)’s Android operating system is fragmented – in more ways than one. It’s just a question of, who cares?
Developers might. Fragmentation has been a thorn in developers’ sides for many years, but Android’s runaway success has caused them to forge ahead anyway. (See Android’s Fragmentation ‘Problem’ and Android Gains Apps Developer Love.)
Google today released its latest Android distribution chart (see below), which illustrates that an encouraging 55.5 percent of Android devices on the market are running Android 2.1, while 22.1 percent have Android 1.6. Only 3.3 percent of devices are running the latest OS version, Android 2.2, but that’s because it’s only available on the now-discontinued Nexus One, although other handsets will be upgraded this year. The remaining 18.9 percent of all Android devices on the market are still running the defunct version 1.5.
For developers, this means a choice between reach and functionality. They can develop for the lowest-level Android 1.5 platform, which is forward-compatible with the newer versions, but not take advantage of the higher-level software and hardware functions. Or, they can alienate half of Android’s user base, but include the latest and greatest features.
This is a reality that mobile video app company Qik Inc. grapples with as it updates its popular app for the latest Android devices. A phone’s hardware is a non-issue for many developers, but as a video streaming app, the two-way video cameras on the iPhone 4, High Tech Computer Corp. (HTC) (Taiwan: 2498) Evo, and other new models present use cases Qik can’t achieve on less fancy phones.
“One of the key things we did early on was realized there’re always going to be new platforms coming out and the whole premise of how we did our solution was to look at how to support platforms on a rapid basis as they evolve,” says Bhaskar Roy, co-founder and VP of products at Qik. “We architected two levels -- one is platform dependent, and one is platform-independent.”
As an example, when Qik was introduced on the Evo, Android didn’t have a way to support it. The developer had to work with HTC to enable it on every Android release from 2.2 on down, but only the Evo got two-way video chat. (See Qik Touts Video Chat Explosion on Sprint's EVO.)
This speed of innovation is a large contributor to Android’s fragmentation quagmire, says Andreas Constantinou, research director at VisionMobile, but it's not the only one.
Implementation fragmentation stemming from handset makers implementing Google’s APIs in different ways is another issue, as is fragmentation of the user experience, code, and hardware.
For example, HTC runs the Sense UI; Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications implements its own Rachael UI; Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) opts for Motoblur; and Samsung Corp. uses TouchWiz. All but Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) have developed a unique UI on top of Android. That’s how device makers differentiate, but it also means that extra time is needed to update their customization as Google updates the OS and delays the overall platform upgrade.
Profile fragmenting stems from the plethora of devices Android is being built into, requiring Android to run a different type of terminal than Google designed it for. Code variance results from Android’s codebase being open and free to the public, meaning that anyone can "fork" it (take a legal copy of the source code and create a distinct new piece of software through independent development) -- and probably will.
“In the future, we could see an OEM consortium fork Android as a counter-measure to Google's increasing control on the Android public codebase,” Constantinou says.
Smartphones have presented their fair share of challenges, but where things will get really fragmented for Android is when it forks into larger-form devices ranging from tablets to TVs to in-car devices. It’s already headed in this direction, causing developers to completely redesign their apps to take advantage of these unique form factors and their subsequent OS upgrades. (See Google TV Comes Out, the World Tunes In and Cisco Debuts Android Tablet for the Enterprise.)
Still, fragmented or not, if its built for Android, developers will come.
“The benefits of increased Android development far outweigh the potential costs involved with version fragmentation,” says Scott Wilson, senior manager at Deloitte Development LLC Research. “From the majority of [developers] we spoke to, they are willing to put up with it as Android becomes more powerful and more and more devices are using it. The upside in terms of revenue will far outweigh the downside in terms of costs with testing and version churn.”
— Sarah Reedy, Senior Reporter, Light Reading Mobile
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