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Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The myth and reality of Android fragmentation and what it means to you?

Android 1.1...Android 1.5... Android 1.6... Android 2.0... Android 2.0.1... Android 2.1... Android 2.2.. Android 2.3... An exhaustive list of Android OS variants; But there is an industry fear which is called Android fragmentation. This is where developers fear that some apps wont run on certain devices because of the Android SDK not giving developers a platform to redesign their apps for the multiple releases of Android available. The Android SDK is the development platform for designing, writing and implementing Android applications. The current SDK has created the possibility whereby the app can be too device-centric and will have problems running on other devices. This issue of fragmentation has haunted Google for a long time. So much so, Eric Schmidt the Google CEO, at the World Mobile Congress 2011 in Barcelona, stated that the issue of fragmentation has been fixed with Android 2.3 Gingerbread and thereafter the roll out of Android OS updates will be in an orderly six month roll period.1 Problem fixed then? Not quite, the fear of fragmentation post-Gingerbread seems to be corrected by this unitary six-monthly update cycle but for pre-Gingerbread devices fragmentation still could exist.

Android 2.1 is the most popularly used version of the OS according to research figures released in 2010.2 According to ZDNet, figures in July of 2010 stated that, Android 2.1 accounted for 45.1%,of the market, yet Donut and Eclair (1.5/1.6) account for 54.4% overall market. The fragmentation process will come to a head when, as Schmidt reported at the MWC in Barcelona earlier this week, Android 2.3 Gingerbread will merge with Tablet-specific Android 3.0 Honeycomb to create in Schmidt's own words “The two of them… you can imagine the follow up will start with an I, be named after dessert, and will combine these two”3 This will bring an end to developers and OEMs fears regarding the notion of fragmentation.

Therefore users on Android 1.6 to 2.2 will be at the mercy of developers who singularly recode their apps for the differentiation that results from each Android OS variant. IMS Research published a report on Android fragmentation worries in April 2010 whilst the report is nearly a year old the questions asked to Mr Schmidt this week prove that fragmentation is still a current worry within the industry and does cause developers issues. IMS Research report stated that they “expect Android to see considerable market share gains in the immediate and near future. However, to keep up that pace of growth, particularly in the high end market, Google absolutely has to manage fragmentation.”4 This is the reason why Google has announced stricter update cycles, which the Open Handset Alliance will have to implement, of course this will break with the old freer notion of Android as open-source and geek-driven. But with Android having obtained global Smart phone OS dominance a  responsibility for the wider mainstream user becomes an important issue. Schimidt, this week, realised this when he stated that “we have an anti-fragmentation clause for all our vendors”5 This tougher approach will mean that the fragmentation of the past where vendors where releasing devices with Android 1.5 to 2.2 will see distribution at an incremental speed so there will be a smaller ratio of fragmentation within Android-based devices in circulation.

So does Google's tougher approach now answer questions and allay fears of developers, OEMs and users alike? Only time will tell but this is the right, albeit belated, step in the right direction for Android. The myth of fragmentation did hurt the platform during the early period. Developers stayed away but with new systems and vendor agreements and Google updating twice-yearly will only mean that Android will go from strength to strength.


3http://www.mobileworldlive.com/tv.asp?id=348 (accessed 17/02/2011) for Eric Schmidt's speech but the Author would like to thank Michael Murphy at Talk Android for introducing him to the topic of fragmentation. His article is available at http://www.talkandroid.com/30474-eric-schmidts-keynote-speech-at-mobile-world-congress/

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