Android Fragmentation – do we really have a choice?

Last week Ryan posted an article on Android and whether the fragmentation of the platform was by design on Google’s part to give the customer the maximum possible choice. While I agreed with some of it, not all.

I’m a big Android fan, I own a Motorola Milestone which currently runs a Android 2.1 and for the last 6 months have been waiting for the official update to Froyo (2.2), and the longer it goes on the more it feels like we’re never going to get it. It’s not a massive issue but it would be nice to have Flash (something the phone was sold claiming to be capable of handling), have the option to save my apps to an SD Card and a few other performance improvements that come from moving to the next version. Over the weekend, while trawling the many Android forums across the internet, I started to consider Android’s fragmentation situation (say that after a couple of pints!) and whether or not it improves customer choice.

Choice is a decision based on the differing qualities of 2 or more things. There is nothing that Android 1.5 offers that 2.2 doesn’t do better, so why would you choose it? If there were multiple versions of Android running side-by-side, each specialising in there own area, it would be a choice of which version of the OS best suits you. Somebody who uses their phone for work a lot might choose a version optimised for email; this is more useful to them than a social-centric platform aimed at someone who just wants to tweet and text. But this isn’t the case; there have been leaps forward in UI and performance at every stage of Android that have, for all intents and purposes, made the previous versions obsolete.

Most people who buy an Android phone don’t know they’re buying an Android phone. They’re in Carphone Warehouse and ask ‘How much is an iPhone gonna set me back?’, once they’ve picked themselves off the floor ‘Erm, have you got anything cheaper, that I can still use to get on Facebook?’, they get sold an Android device. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just only a small group of geeks, who I’d lump myself in with, that are genuinely bothered about which OS their smartphone is running or likely to delve deeper than its most basic functions.

So is price the choice that these various stages of Android offer? Lower spec hardware, running older versions of the OS and bringing the price down for the customer? Well, in short, no. Android is free, whichever version a manufacturer chooses to use, and even though there have been some hardware restrictions as the versions have moved on, you can still walk into a shop today and get a Free HTC Wildfire running 2.1 on a £15/month contract. You’re going to struggle to find a cheaper deal than that, running any version of Android.

Manufacturers have differentiated by adding their own skins to Android and I’d agree that HTC’s Sense UI is best example of this. But what I’d say that it’s also the only skin that could realistically claim to have improved on stock Android. The rest (I’m looking at you Sony, Motorola, Samsung!) have made clunky, unintuitive UI changes or added their own useless apps that are difficult, if not impossible, to remove from the phone. Most frustratingly, they tend to be things you can easily pick up in the Android market. This also has a knock on effect on updates Google release, further delaying them while we wait for manufacturers to add their skins and then organising getting the update out. I initially bought my Milestone because of the physical keyboard and the fact it ran stock Android and although I’ve had my phone less than 12 months and had 1 update in that time, I’m still now 2 versions behind the latest phones that are being released. Not that I’m bitter!!!

That’s not to say things aren’t improving. Google’s best move has been removing some of its key apps from the OS update cycle. Gmail, Google Maps, etc. are now regularly updated separately, so even if you don’t have the full version of the latest Android OS you can use them.

Google have to reduce the current state of fragmentation if they want Android to keep increasing its market share. We can already see Google attempting this with the Honeycombe (Android 3.0) tablets that have been announced over the last few weeks; all have identical form factors, no manufacturer skins and almost identical internals. Only time will tell if they manage to ride out this transition period and the Android explosion continues. It is the most open and accessible mobile OS currently in the market and the only one giving Apple’s crown a serious shove.

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About the Author

Swaggering around the marketing department with a coffee and a smile. @kissoff_matt for more swears and nonsense.