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Android Fragmentation - do we really have a choice?

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.

Android Donut, Cupcake and Ice Cream Sanwich

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.

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.