Is Android's fragmentation still a big problem?

Taylor Martin
 from  Concord, NC
| April 5, 2011

Android has come a long way in a very short time. Starting on just one phone, the platform rose to be the most widely used mobile platform in the world, sitting atop the mobile industry. All of this was accomplished in just under two and a half years and Rubin's team has taken the world by surprise. That said, the platform doesn't come without its faults, and some major ones at that.

Over the course of its first years in consumer's hands, Android experienced five major updates: Cupcake (1.5), Donut (1.6), Eclair (2.0 and 2.1), Froyo (2.2), Gingerbread (2.3). Since Google's platform is open source, several manufacturers are using it and there has been no real regulation over updates; each manufacturer has had the right to decide what devices will get updates and when they will get them. Thus we have the dreaded Android fragmentation. Some devices are sporting the latest build of Android, while others are stuck on the second, third, and fourth versions.

Smartphone platforms are still relatively new to the consumer world and this fragmentation issue is completely different from what we've dealt with in the past – save for BlackBerry. Take Apple for example. Since they make the OS and the hardware, they have vertical integration. They have control over when updates become available, which is usually at the same time for all devices. This is also true for HPalm's webOS platform and hardware.

Since Android was released, it has been called out on the fragmentation issue quite a few times. In fact, it has grown enough to make Motorola consider building their own web-based OS. All of this has given Google the proper motivation to start sorting out the fragmentation debacle and doing what they can to combat it.

A recent rumor claims that Google is taking another step forward in an attempt to fight fragmentation. They've supposedly decided to regulate things a little more tightly and control tweaks made to the OS by individual manufacturers. They have been making companies sign “non-fragmentation clauses.”

Not convinced the issue is dissipating, Baird Research conducted a survey with 250 developers to see if they still think fragmentation is an issue. Only 14 percent found it to be a non-issue while the remaining 86 percent believe it's still a problem. Nearly a fourth of the developers still find fragmentation to be a major issue, and a third believe it's a meaningful problem.

From a consumer's standpoint, the fragmentation issue is definitely waning. Manufacturers have vowed to bring updates faster, and many of the newer mid-range and low-end devices that tend to be neglected of updates are getting their tasty Android treats. Nearly two-thirds of all the Android devices are sporting Froyo now. Just under a third of users are stuck on 2.1 and only 3 and 4.8 percent are left on Android 1.5 and 1.6 respectively.

Of course, there will always be a cut-off point. Not every device can continually get updates beyond their shelf life. We even witnessed this with the iPhone 3G and iOS 4. But it's the manufacturer's responsibility to future-proof their phones as best they can, and more and more manufacturers appear to be doing so.

Being so open, Google may always have to fight this battle. But the fact that they're addressing the issue and taking action to control and regulate how their platform gets updated should at least appease consumers and developers for the time being. We can't ask them to fix it and expect results overnight. Do you still think fragmentation is a major issue? Will it make you consider another platform in a future purchase?

Image via AndroidSpin