Saturday, January 29, 2011

Android fragmentation and why it matters

If you follow Engadget at all, you know that their journalists are pretty unbiased. If there's anything they collectively hate, however, it's Android fragmentation.

I'll break it down a bit:
The Android OS is on many different devices (Google phones, Motorola's Droid line, HTC phones, and Samsung phones, as in their Galaxy S line). Each of these hardware manufacturers are able to put their own "skin" (or UI) over the stock Android software. They do this to differentiate their phones from the competitor's and to make any "improvements" that they see fit. The skins have various names: MotoBlur (Motorola),  Sense UI (HTC), TouchWiz (Samsung). These are the most popular, and are put on top of the stock Android software that you find on the Nexus 1 and Nexus S (Samsung's only Galaxy S phone without TouchWiz).

What the consumer gets then, is a wide variety of devices all running the same software (Android) but with very different user interfaces. In other words, a Motorola user could be very confused when they pick up a Samsung device. Confusion, however, is the least of the consumer's problem.

When a new version of Android is released it takes time for the hardware manufacture to put their trademark skin over that software. Their devices, in turn, are unable to be updated to the latest version of the Android OS until the manufacture puts out their updated version. This might not be so bad, except lately some manufactures have decided to not even put out the newest version of the skinned Android OS to their older phones. Users with phones that are a year old are left in the dust, while only brand new users get the latest software coupled with the latest hardware.

A great example of this is when the latest version of the mobile Android OS was released, Android 2.3 Gingerbread. The flagship Android 2.3 phone was the Nexus S, which (surprisingly) ran stock Gingerbread with no TouchWiz UI. This was a great update to Android and was praised as such. However, many phones could not be updated. Some phones, such as in Samsung's Galaxy S line, had yet to be updated to 2.2 Froyo, let alone 2.3!

How does this affect the consumer in the long term? What we end up getting is a host of Android devices all running different versions of the software under skins that arguably subtract from the best Android experience possible. If you buy a phone now, there's no guarantee that you will receive the next Android update when it comes out, months after it comes out, or ever. Some users may be ok with this, as they might not update their phone even if the update was available. This mentality seems to work fine at first, but what about when a security issue is brought up about the current version of Android? I for one want the most updated software possible, to minimize issues like this.

Android fragmentation is very real and has the possibility to have a very negative effect on users, especially now, in the year of the tablets.

Have you experienced Android fragmentation? What are your thoughts on it?
Interested in what Google has to say? " a red herring"



  1. Speaking from experience I can atest that it is a very real issue, however the 'skins' like "SenseUI", "MotoBlur", etc aren't the issue.

    Those skins are simply the manufacturers putting their "creative license" to use to attempt to make a more streamlined experience. Sure, it has failed, a lot, however the real issue lies in the hardware.

    I don't personally think it's that big of a deal because it's actually driving innovation in both the software and the hardware. The Moto Xoom and Moto Atrix are great examples of what Android is capable of.

    I don't think Andoird is significantly "better" or "worse" than iOS... just different and they're for different people.

    Honestly, I don't hear a lot of complaints from your run of the mill Android user. The biggest complaints come from the blogs like Engadget, Gizmodo, etc. It's a story to them so they report it.

  2. Kevin, great points. I completely agree about Android being for specific people, as is WP7 and iOS.

    As far as complaints go, I think many users don't know what they're missing simply because they've never had it. I think a streamlined Android experience with one specific app store and (even with different UI's) everybody on the same version would be a far more powerful force then we see now.

    That said, Google has never been one to "streamline" anything. Plus, this would get in the way of the Android "open" experience...more on that later.

  3. You're right. Average users don't know, and a lot (if not most), don't even care that much. The hardcore users enjoy the hackability of their phones and have actually enjoyed some of that myself.

    It is a huge problem though. I mean my brother-in-law's 18 month old phone won't even run Angry Birds... that's a problem.

  4. It seems that with a little better licensing agreement that Google would be able to overcome this problem. Such as requiring anyone selling Android software to make their devices usable with any version of Android, so if you don't want the skin that LG put on the phone you can just reprogram the entire thing the way you want without screwing with your contract, warranty etc.

    Just a thought. As for myself, I think if I go Android I will ensure that my phone is running the full Android software in a way I can modify it at my choosing.

  5. Remember, those old enough, the difference between American cars and the Japanese?

    Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, for example. Two cars that show the idea of committing to a model, and building loyalty. Those cars have been around for decades.

    The American cars, in contrast, generally introduced new models constantly. You could never keep up. The "all new" XXX model. Every year. So what you bought last year was not new this year.

    Personally I see a parallel here. Android phones are in a constant state of flux.
    The best one last month is certainly not the best one this month.

    Some people prefer the tried-and-true model vs. this year's flashy new model.
    The one with the track record.

    Others genuinely want the newest model even if it's a bit of a gamble.

    Personally I want the phone to be as unobtrusive and reliable as possible.