Android Fragmentation; what does it mean and why do we care?

OpenSignal’s report into Android Fragmentation makes for interesting reading. This image illustrates some of the diversity within the Android market, showing what devices are available. I find that the diversification is cause for more celebration than not because it highlights that there are devices for all budgets and preferences. But there are some real problems associated with having so many different models available.

OpenSource's 2014 graphical schematic showing the state of the Android universe

OpenSource’s 2014 graphical schematic showing the state of the Android universe

One of the selling points of Apple’s mobile devices is that they have a very similar look and feel. It’s most obvious between the iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad models, because once you have mastered how one of these devices works, you can pick up and use one of its cousins very easily.

The reason for this consistency is because Apple control the user interface, default applications and app store: if you want to customize your iPhone by adding third party applications, you need to use the Apple iTunes Store. There are also comparatively limited ways to adjust the interface of the handset, too.

The same is not true of Android devices.

The experience you’ll have depends on the manufacture and interface of the device: although the LG G3, HTC One M8, Google Nexus 5 and Samsung Galaxy S5 may run similar versions of Android, their interfaces are different. You’re likely to see Google’s applications competing with the manufacturer’s applications and, even worse, your carrier may have preloaded their own content onto your device. And you may find an alternative to the Google Play Store. Software updates for the non-Google handsets are delayed by the manufacturer’s involvement and, often, your carrier.

Google’s control over most Android devices is limited. And in some respects, it’s this lack of control that helps make the Android experience what it is, because it means that we as users can exercise freedom over the content, layout and interface on our devices. But in other respects, it dilutes the experience and ultimately confuses customers.

This is one of the side effects of fragmentation in the Android market, combined with varying compatibility across applications released in the Play Store.

Other side effects include legions of devices not running a current, or even recent, version of the software. This can be a security risk as older versions of the operating system are less secure than current versions. Older versions of Android also will not be able to run as many applications as newer versions, although this has not yet become a serious issue for Android as written in 2014.

Google are making inroads into the issue by pressurizing manufacturers to release timely upgrades to their devices together with releasing applications such as Google Play Services. We’ve seen evidence of some improvement and indeed, following June 2014’s Google I/O, some of the big name manufacturers have confirmed that they’re to release Android L inside 90 days of getting the source code.

There are a number of additional projects that should help the problem of fragmentation across the market, including Android One and the rumoured Android Silver.

Android One is Google’s initiative for the developing market by introducing inexpensive handsets running stock Android, with software updates released direct from Google. Google have also set down minimum hardware standards; they’re setting out to control the hardware and software of the device and so the user experience.

Microsoft tried this approach with Windows Phone 7, released back in October 2010. It worked. Each of these first generation Windows Phone handsets had their own particular strengths but all benefited from the same consistent user interface.

The rumored Android Silver merits it’s own article, but this could pan out a little bit like an upgraded Google Nexus and Google Play Edition range of handsets. The story is that Android Silver sees Google pick the five best handsets to sell as stock Android devices to customers with the support of the carriers.

Android Silver, especially, is not without issues. It’s important to remember that comparatively few manufacturers just sell mobile products. HTC is one exception, but Samsung, Sony especially sell much more than just smartphones and tablet devices. Apple, of course, use their mobile devices as a means of encouraging consumers to buy an Apple Mac. Part of the way that a manufacturer aims to build device loyalty is through a common look and feel and also by bundling services on their mobile products that translate to their bigger objects.

The carriers also want their share of customer loyalty and one way that they attempt to garner this is by including their own junk bloat pre-loaded applications. Android Silver won’t allow this, either.

Having Android Silver at the top end and Android One at the low end leaves a big gap in the middle. Will the manufacturers attempt to squeeze in their added software and features at this point of the market, like the HTC Desire 601, or instead will we see more products like the Moto X? Or will carrier and manufacturers’ other interests (as each considers the user to be their customer) get in the way?

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