Android Fragmentation – it’s all about choice

An argument often laid at the feet of the Google Android operating system (often by iPhone owners I might add) is the fragmentation of the OS among the many Android handsets out there. While the latest version of the Android OS to roll out of Google is 2.3 (also known as Gingerbread), it can take time for this to reach user’s handsets. But this approach wasn’t an accident by Google. The whole point of Android was to offer choice to the consumer – not just a choice between Android and iPhone, but a choice between the different Android handsets themselves. There is only one iPhone. There are literally dozens of Android handsets to choose from, and the number keeps growing. This fragmentation issue isn’t going to go away.

So how bad is it?
One of the most popular Android handsets in the UK today, and indeed the phone I use myself, has been the HTC Desire. For most owners it currently runs on the 2.2 version of the Android OS known. Only one point behind Gingerbread, so not a big case for the crime of gross fragmentation there you might think.

Trouble is, not many phones at all have the latest and greatest version of the Android OS officially installed and running. Off the top of my head (which means I may have overlooked a handset) the only phones that do are the Nexus S and the…

Is that it? All in all, there are still 5 different versions of Android roaming around in the wild.  In fairness, change is taking place, the latest figures for February 2011 show 90% of devices running Android 2.1 and up, primarily Froyo Android 2.2.

That’s still not great, especially when compared to perhaps its biggest rival Apple. In stark contrast, when an iOS update is available, every handset (still in production) can upgrade to the latest version, albeit that there may only be one iOS handset in production at the time.

One platform?
The key thing about having just one platform is that, for developers, you always know where you stand. You just have to develop for the current version of the operating system. Android poses a bit more of a headache, a view expressed by established game designers such as Epic. Also Rovio became well aware of the extent of the problem went they released the popular Angry Birds title to Android, only to be inundated with performance issues mostly due to the older version not being unable to handle the game’s requirements.

The main reason why this fragmentation even exists is down to the fact that most original equipment manufacturers (OEM) have a penchant for putting their own software on top of the Android OS (again, in order to improve choice to the consumer). For some, this has arguably been successful. The HTC Sense UI has garnered a good deal of praise and was very much welcomed in the early days of Android when the UI left much to be desired.

Can you direct me to the nearest app store please?
What exacerbates the problem even further is that this isn’t the only type of fragmentation Android suffers from, it is also hindered by the many different stores that you can download your Android apps from. Let me see now, again off the top of my head, you have the actual Android Market store (with the newly updated webstore), AppBrain, GameLoft, GetJar and no doubt a few others.

Freedom!
Ultimately, Google have opted for freedom versus the walled garden approach of Apple. Yes freedom has its costs, but at least you can choose to be free if you want to be. Android has proven to be a popular system. In the last quarter of 2010 Android phone makers sold 33.3 million units leading sales for smartphone platforms, that equates to 53% of US market share.  Clearly, there’s something about what Android does that is winning the affection and currency of phone users the world over.

The consumer now has so much choice that with a little bit of research there should be little problem finding the phone to suit you.  As I said before, Apple’s App Store is a lot like walking through a mall where you can have a coffee and find all your favourite high street brands under one roof.  By contrast, the Android App Market is more like an East London market, perhaps somewhere around Spitafields or Brick Lane. There’s a lot going on but there’s always loads of personality, character and something new every time you visit.

So what’s your preference? The serene but soulless mall or the crazy but personality-filled marketplace? Let me and the Dabs crew know through Twitter, Facebook, our Forum and of course on blog comments.

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