Fragmentation. The very word alone sends chills down one's back. For any person who appreciates Android, it is the bane of his existence. It seems to be the argument that everyone who dislikes Android falls back on. In fact, Apple recently said that the rise of new tablets like the Amazon Kindle Fire, which many bloggers and analysts feel could actually give the iPad a run for its money, doesn't really bother them, but rather the company views these tablets as sort of "tools" to seduce developers away from Android due to the fact that they will further fragment the OS.

But is fragmentation really that big of a problem? We know the percentages and we've seen Google's reports on Android distribution, but how deep does it go? That's a question I've wanted to have the answer to for a while. I've been just like several Android fans - I've brushed the idea of fragmentation off to the side as if it didn't really matter what version of the OS I was running. I couldn't do that anymore. So, I sat down and crunched the numbers. Honestly, they aren't pretty.

(Please note that the purpose of this article is not to "bash" Android. Comparisons between Android's update process and that of other OSes will not be made unless necessary. The purpose of this research is simply to get a clear view of the numbers and the facts. Basically, I come in peace.)

The Numbers

There are some very interesting charts and graphs out there that illustrate other researchers' findings, most of them very useful. Michael Degusta from The Understatement blog recently reported on so-called "Android Orphans". He showed his findings after tracking the update history for eighteen popular Android devices released between 2008 and Q1 and Q2 of 2010. In short, seven of the eighteen phones never ran a current version of the OS; twelve of the eighteen only ran a current version of the OS for a few weeks or even less; ten of the eighteen were at least two major versions behind well within their two-year contract period (not including minor versions with security updates); and sixteen of the eighteen will almost certainly never get Ice Cream Sandwich, to be released in a few weeks. The tracked devices include the HTC Hero, Motorola Droid, HTC Droid Eris, HTC Droid Incredible, HTC EVO 4G, and other highly popular Android handsets.

This got me thinking. So, I decided to crunch a few numbers of my own and see what I would come up with. I did two "mini-studies." The first calculates how many Android phones are running an old version of the OS and the second gives a rough update history of all of the Android phones released worldwide in the past year.

First, exactly how many Android phones are running around with an outdated version of the OS? Google recently revealed that there are 190 million active Android devices in the world. The company also released the latest Android distribution chart, which can be viewed below along with my calculations. If there are 186,390,000 Android phones in the world (see my calculations in the chart below), according to Google's percentages:

  • 102,030,000 or 54 percent of these phones are one or more versions behind
  • 1.7 million devices are still running version 1.5 (that sounds a lot worse than .9%, right?)
  • 2.6 million devices are still running version 1.6
  • Even worse, 20.3 million Android phones are running a version of the OS that is nearly two years old and have not yet been updated to the version that was released over a year ago.

Those numbers are astounding.

So, let's track some of these devices and see how they fared with these updates. What led to 54 percent of Android phones being behind? Well, of the roughly 103 major Android phones that were released from November 2010 to November 2011 worldwide (not including devices by unknown manufactures like KCPT, to give a hypothetical example):

  • 44 were released already one version behind
  • Of those 44, only 22 (half) were eventually updated once from either 2.1 to 2.2 or from 2.2 to 2.3
  • 22 are still one version behind. This number includes devices like the Sidekick 4G, Samsung Droid Charge, LG Thrill, and more.

As Michael Degusta pointed out in his report, "every US carrier is still selling - even just now introducing - smartphones that will almost certainly never run Gingerbread and beyond."

It's not just software fragmentation

Some say that this problem could easily be solved by Google having a tighter grip on its partners and finding a way to update every phone where possible. While that will help, the problem is it's not just software fragmentation that is affecting the OS, it's hardware fragmentation, too.

A November 2011 report by WDS brought out that, along with fragmentation of the Android OS itself, "consumers' expectations for performance are dismantled by a different hardware build and by potentially resource-hungry operator and manufacturer overlays." In an interview with ReadWriteWeb, Tim Deluca-Smith, WDS' Vice President for Marketing, said, "While Android deployments may show a higher propensity to hardware failures than rival OS platforms, analysis of these hardware faults shows no principle defects on the platform; i. e., the platform is not predisposed to one particular hardware defect." Basically, the problem is not just software, it's cheaply-made hardware as well.

Who is affected? Everyone.

Literally, everyone. Fragmentation affects developers, retailers, and users (that's you). The same report by WDS that shed light on the problem of hardware fragmentation, showed that because of the higher than average propensity for hardware failure on Android-based devices (14 percent), operators are spending $2 billion a year to provide support and repairs for their customers. (As a note, that number of 14 percent is one percentage point lower than the 15 percent mark manufacturers use to determine defective phones. This shows you how poorly some of these Android devices are constructed.)

The software and hardware fragmentation of Android scares developers. A Q1 2011 study conducted by Baird venture capitalist William Powers in which 250 developers were surveyed, found that 86% of them felt the fragmentation of Android to be anywhere between somewhat of a problem and a huge problem and many of these developers prefer to develop within iOS' or BlackBerry's unified system. This is what Apple was referring to in the quote I alluded to earlier. Software fragmentation is difficult enough to deal with, but hardware fragmentation means that developers also have to optimize their apps for several devices differing in capabilities and specifications.

And then of course, there's us. The consumers. We could have one of the 102 million devices that are running an outdated version of Android. What exactly are we missing out on? Well, things like NFC support, Live Wallpapers, speech-to-text, exchange support, an improved camera and gallery, mobile hotspot support, the ability install apps on your SD card, and a new virtual keyboard, not to mention overall UI enhancements and improvements in power consumption and performance. Those are just a few of the hundreds of new features and enhancements that some are missing. And in a few weeks, when Ice Cream Sandwich is released, we'll all be a version behind.

The Solution

Typically, when a problem affects over 50 percent of a company's devices, that's a huge problem. It appears that Google realizes how truly deep this problem is. The company has been a little more protective of the source code for Honeycomb, only releasing it to a few manufacturers. Some have used this as a reason to attack Google since Android is supposed to be fully open. However, can you see why they've taken such drastic measures? As WDS' Tim Deluca-Smith said, "Android has done great things for the industry, even low-cost product. However, carriers must be better at bringing the variety of Android builds onto their networks. Low cost has its place. It shouldn't be used across all customer segments as a means to reducing subsidy costs." Yes, budget-friendly Android phones are needed. Not everyone can afford to spend $200, $100, or even $50 on a smartphone. However, shipping products that provide low-quality performance is helping neither the consumer or the manufacturer.

Google has also formed the Android Update Alliance and partnered with several manufacturers to ensure that updates are sent out in a timely manner. It's time to see the fruits of that alliance.

Unfortunately, a lot of damage has already been done. Even if Ice Cream Sandwich is the unifying version and the Alliance works the way that it should, how long will it take before the playing field is even and versions 1.5 through 2.2 aren't even on a million devices? The problem can be solved and I trust that Google will do its best, but for you Android loyalists, you may have to endure a few more taunts of "fragmentation, fragmentation, fragmentation" before the OS is truly free of the problem. The life of an Android loyalist isn't an easy one, but it has its shining moments.

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68 Reactions to this post

"Is Android fragmentation a problem?"

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Paul McCabe
Paul McCabe I'm running the cyanogen mod 7.1 is there more than one?
Luchian Hristov
Luchian Hristov Android later version can run on most "abandoned" headset BUT manufactures are too busy selling new model having almost equal hardware. Market behavior rule here not so much specification of each device...... :(
Jonathan Ng
Jonathan Ng very deep
Angel Miguel Peguero
Angel Miguel Peguero look at he htc hd2 running gingerbread or windows phone 7 can the iphone do that lol
Angel Miguel Peguero
Angel Miguel Peguero customs roms enough said so android wins like iphone 4 got all the feautures of ios5 cough siri
Josh Lazenby
Josh Lazenby I would say yes, and no. There is a problem with updates not being rolled out in a timely manner, but many of the devices running Android 1.6 or other older versions of Android are low end cheapy phones, or even feature phones. People with those phones are lucky to be running such a capable OS. If not for Android, most of those phones would be running a proprietary no name firmware. I think age of the device, price point, and class of the device should be taken into account when looking at fragmentation. Yes, Billy Bob's 3 year old free on contract phone may have never been updated past Android 1.6... but what better option does he have for a 3 year old FREE phone? Yeah... exactly the point.
Kevin Joel
Kevin Joel Not a problem in my world!
Jason King
Jason King The problem here is this Apple and Google have made updates news and are now popular with all of these keynotes. When news of these updates come out and they talk about how good everything is supposed to be after these updates that makes you want the updates. So now you want to update and you want to know how you can get it if your phone can't be upgraded then of course you are going to want to know why. Hardware nowadays is becoming very similar in specs, what's next is support if you can't get any support what's the point of investing in that hardware.
Sol Foster
Sol Foster All IOS users choose the blue pill and move on!
Danu Carrión Perales
Danu Carrión Perales Lmao its incredible how stupid can be sometimes... can anyone please tell me the difference between the latest update besides the battery icon, notification bar color and the scroll over glow? This whole fragmentation bullshit started since steve jobs started pointing it out because android was simply raping IOS devices in sales and everything else and the only flaw he could seem to point out is that... in the REAL world, the great majority of people will never notice the difference and probably won't care at all for newer versions with the exception that the update has really noticeable differences for example, android 2.2 which enabled flash and now ics which changes almost completely looks and function like multitasking for example.. this is pure bullshit and just a stupid reason to try and bash on android devices, yes there are some sorry ass ones like motorola cliq or cliq xt which stayed on 1.6 or xperia x10 on 2.1 but those are the oldest devices! Does the oldes iphone get the update to ios5? Does the hd2 get the wp7 update??? No??? Thank you..
Michael Beastmode White
Michael Beastmode White @Juan "the retard" Munoz, ain't a damn thing freezing or going slow but you're damn brain. haven't had a single problem on Android that I haven't had on ios. Get off apples Dick you fat bastard.
Jesus G. Nolasco
Brandon Johnson
Brandon Johnson The biggest problem I seen came this year with the thunderbolt, that phone just got gb like last month, I really want to hear the excuse for that one because that phone's been out since about April.
Sami Escueta Retiniano
Sami Escueta Retiniano People shouldn't have to root their phone to be up to date.
Jim Lucas
Jim Lucas Stable. Fast. Solid. DX.
Brandon Johnson
Brandon Johnson I'm gonna go ahead and put a crack in that 40% of iOS users don't have iOS 5 argument, I'm pretty sure there are more users out there with an iPod touch that doesn't have the hardware necessary. Android's problem is some of the manufacturers don't care and don't at least future proof their phones beyond one year. If your high end phone from last year turns into a low end piece of crap the next year, google also gets blame here because these manufacturers also make wp7 phones and they all got the update.
Abram Wenevermet Dennis
Abram Wenevermet Dennis I hate androids
Tim Miyashiro
Tim Miyashiro Not when you root. Custom ROMs FTW!
Jordan Toussant
Jordan Toussant It is a huge problem with android but its the fault of the OEMs like HTC and Samsung their ui runs so deep in android it almost makes it a whole new operating system to the point when major updates do happen you will not be able to really "see" the difference and they really should only release one true flagship phone for each service provider a year and focus their time on getting the updates to that one phone
Nathan Redinbo
Nathan Redinbo Fragmentation is avoided by rooting. I don't believe it is a huge problem though. Just a shame that some phones don't get the GB love they deserve.
Sheunesu Dominic Mugabe
Sheunesu Dominic Mugabe iOS ftw
Juan Carlos Munoz
Juan Carlos Munoz All you android lovers are idiots. That system is horrible. It freezes and acts slow. It's not stable. WTF
John Fisher
John Fisher This is exactly why I buy the iPhone.
Hendrick Equis M
Hendrick Equis M Consumers need to learn what android phone to get
Linyera Baez-Rivera
Linyera Baez-Rivera Root and update to the latest and greatest. MIUI for me.
Luis Reich
Luis Reich Really? Just saw a chart that only 40 percent of iOS users are on version 5. Is iOS fragmented too? This is a crap argument. Any proper app will work just fine on 2.2, or 4.0.
Adrian Salazar
Adrian Salazar People bitch to much about fragmentation, like someone in the thread said ealier just get a nexus device or just root and update manually to the latest version of android
Ernest Marvin Esteban
Ernest Marvin Esteban Haha.. wp7 s for losers. Haha
Jeremy Whitman
Jeremy Whitman For all of you who say that your going iso or windows...you drank the kool-aid....
Benjamin Handel
Benjamin Handel Yes!
George Mellen
George Mellen Isn't there an 'app' for that?
David Juarez
David Juarez @Krunal Darji, battery life is subjective and user-dependent.
Krunal Darji
Krunal Darji Pathetic slow crap with horrible battery-life.. always felt like a beta and still does! (Hoping ICS will fix this!)
David Juarez
David Juarez Fragmentation is not limited to Android either. As long as we have technology and different manufacturers, you have to think that they have to meet the demand of different types of people
Christopher E. Truty
Christopher E. Truty Root your damn phone if you want to stay up to date. I'm running 2.3.7 CM 7.1 with ICS theme on my Evo 4G.
Ernest Marvin Esteban
Ernest Marvin Esteban very well said @David Juarez
Jim Eakins
Jim Eakins About as much as crapple's fragmentation
Ernest Marvin Esteban
Ernest Marvin Esteban @eddie neugebauer nexus 1 is old and the hardwares can not handle ICS. ICS needs a lot of internal memory and nexus 1 nly has 512mb. The nexus one is not a problem of fragmentation but a problem of hardware limitations
Guillermo De León
Guillermo De León rooooot!!!!
David Juarez
David Juarez Just like I posted in the article, the numbers are also being skewed, in my opinion, because you have to look at the number of people who own these phones too. How many android users of the general population own these phones caring about updates or modifying their phones? How many buy cheaper android phones that may not be upgraded because that is all they can afford? How many technical users are out there that buy for updates? Just looking at the straight data is only part of the bigger picture. If you have 10 people who own an android phone, I would say 8 out of 10 would be the general population and the others would be a mix of technical or power users who know more. This is just an opinion and not based on anything but that.
Ernest Marvin Esteban
Ernest Marvin Esteban Talk about siri being an iphone 4s exclusive. Lol. Haha
Spencer Bartholomew
Spencer Bartholomew #root. ICS is nothing to a rooted phone running cm7
Eddie Neugebauer
Eddie Neugebauer By saying " buy a nexus phone and you'll always be updated" your excluding the nexus 1 right????
Ernest Marvin Esteban
Ernest Marvin Esteban And i hate people bitchin about how there old and cheap android phones never gets an updates. Just pure stupidity. If you really want to get supported all the way, buy a premium device. Buy a nexus.
Arvydas Gr
Arvydas Gr Yes. It is one of the reason I sold my Android phones and got WP7
Dennis Petrospour
Dennis Petrospour its simple to just root and not wait for carriers
Ernest Marvin Esteban
Ernest Marvin Esteban If you are really concerned about fragmentation then just buy a nexus device. Problem solved.
Ernest Marvin Esteban
Ernest Marvin Esteban Nope its not.
Ryan Hunter
Ryan Hunter No, to the average user, they can't tell the difference and don't care. If you DO care, get Cyanogenmod, its not that hard. It's not like we are using Apple products that only lets you use the newest latest technology if you waste your money to buy the newest version.
Eric Matthews
Eric Matthews always issues with mine. but I had issues with my Iphone 4 as well
Steve Jones
Steve Jones Buy Google's nexus devices and you will always be updated.
Zakari Ghachi
Zakari Ghachi No it's not get your self the latest beast and stop bitching
Kaizer Joelle
Kaizer Joelle Currently using an android device. 1 more month and I'm out of this hellhole. I won't ever consider buying an android product again! iOS or windows all the way! At least they care about their customers.
Ed Baylon
Ed Baylon Just root and install CM7 and now you're on 2.3.7 like me. Or just get a Nexus phone.
Johnny Cababe
Johnny Cababe As in the words of lil john, "yeeeeeaaah!!!!!"
Clarence Dempsey
Clarence Dempsey If your computer was brought with Windows XP did you up grade to Windows 7? What the difference?
Bjørn Are Andreassen
Bjørn Are Andreassen Yep
Carlos Chee
Carlos Chee I'm on 2.3.7 right now. =)
Miguel Rodriguez
Miguel Rodriguez nothing new lol
Alex Lopez
Alex Lopez I'm on the same page as dayan...so imma say NO ..haha
Shilo Maggi
Shilo Maggi Mmmmn. Kool-aid.
Andres Ramirez
Andres Ramirez They need to make it easier to upgrade the software
Daniel Quintero
Daniel Quintero Yep
Julius Ray Washington
Julius Ray Washington yes it's a huge problem, I am a huge supporter of android, but I'm growing tired of their fragmentation when it comes to updating android based devices. and I'm thinking heavy on makin my next mobile purchase a windows based device.
Dave Keller
Dave Keller Nope.
Dayan Inclán
Dayan Inclán I really have no idea what fragmentation isbor.hownit.affects my phone.
Christian Carlos Falu
Christian Carlos Falu not really...
Enrique Pascual
Enrique Pascual Duh

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