Android Fragmentation: A real possibility

Android is the fastest growing mobile operating systemand has overtaken Apple’s iOS in the last quarter. A number of handset vendors are signing up Android to take advantage of an open smartphone OS. On its part, Android is quickly releasing the new versions to keep adding features and retain consumer interest. However, due to multiple versions and handset vendors, there is a real possibility of Android getting fragmented. The Linux platform (Android is Linux based) is particularly susceptible to fragmentation because its modularity and open license make it highly conducive to customization and derivation. This article explores the reasons for fragmentation and the repercussions of fragmentation on Android.

What is operating system fragmentation?

Operating system fragmentation is a term used to describe the situation when multiple versions of the same OS coexist and used by significant number of users. OS fragmentation results in a situation where the developer has to develop applications for all the different versions of the same OS to reach all consumers or the consumers of different versions may get different experience. The fragmentation is not good for any of the ecosystem players be it the vendor or operator or the OS owner. Platform fragmentation can weaken interoperability because applications that are built for one variant might not work on others.

Fragmentation reduces the addressable market of applications, increases the cost of development and could ultimately break the developer story around Android.

Reasons for Android fragmentation

There are four main reasons for Android fragmentation which are listed below:

1. Platform Versions: Android has been pretty fast in releasing new versions and has already released nine versions in around two years of its existence. There are predominantly four versions of Android OS and the share of different versions of the Android OS is shown in the image in the right (source: Android). On top of this, there are rumors of Android 2.3 and 3.0 versions coming to market any time soon. Most of the phones have specifications designed in a way that it can support utmost one more version update. With the replacement cycle of 2 years for the phones, there are enough phones in the hands of the users that run on old versions.

Version fragmentation is particularly acute due to the limited availability of an automatic update mechanism much like that found on the iPhone.

2. Form Factors: The challenges of fragmentation are more profound in the mobile space than on the desktop because the degree of fragmentation is compounded by the fundamental differences between different kinds of devices. From the developer perspective, it is important for handset vendors to have the same aspect ratio for screens. This is difficult to achieve when there are multiple vendors for the same operating system. There are rumors of MediaTek based vendors (read: Chinese Vendors) to come up with Android handsets. This would increase form factor fragmentation as the Chinese vendors would not only have different screen sizes but also different screen resolutions. Currently, there are over 8 screen resolutions for Android handsets and the most common screen resolution is WVGA but it has only 40% share of the Android devices. This means that the user experience can vary substantially across Android handsets.

3. OEM specific User Interfaces: The biggest problem for handset vendors in adopting Android is the fact that it leaves no room for differentiation amongst hardware vendors leading to low margins. In order to provide differentiation, some of the handset vendors like HTC and Motorola have come out with their own versions. The presence of these versions create additional compatibility pitfalls and need for vendor specific testing.

4. Multiple Device Categories: Android is being used for multiple device categories like the mobile phones, set top boxes, tablets, televisions, PNDs, etc. which is another source of fragmentation. On iPad which users iOS (from Apple itself), the Linkedin and other applications do not show up properly as these applications were made keeping iPhone in mind. If Apple with its few products can face this kind of problem, then Android is sure to face similar issues.

What is Google doing to fight fragmentation?

Android has started off well but is now getting sleepless nights on the issue of fragmentation which is going from bad to worse with each passing day. Google will need to take a pause some time and think how to handle the multiple vendors and form factors for Android phones. Google on its part is trying hard to keep the fragmentation to the minimum by focusing on portability by using bytecode for compilation of programs. Use of bytecode means loss in performance but makes up by providing portability.

Google controls Android Market and has been very particular about the compliance to the compatibility standard. This encourages hardware vendors to stay within certain boundaries and not deviate from the default code base to an extent that would make applications incompatible. The parameters of the Android compatibility definition are pretty restrictive. The standard requires devices to have a touchscreen, GPS, camera and Bluetooth. Any Android product that doesn’t meet the hardware standards is ineligible to ship the Android Market.

The Android fragmentation fear is for real unlike what Google may want us to believe. If Google wants to keep the OS relevance for the developers, it would need to be selective in partnerships and be more categorical about what kind of devices can join the club. In my view the MediaTek partnership will cost Android dearly in future.

Is Android Fragmentation a real danger?

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are my personal views and do not reflect the views of my employer.

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