Android: A Fragmented Platform or Not?

Android RobotIf you were to believe the latest headlines at Business Insider, Android is a fragmented mobile platform and has a negative effect on the applications, for developers and end-users alike. Android is currently in a heated battle with the other two big names in mobile technology (the iPhone and the BlackBerry being the other two), and this is a serious matter definitely worthy of discussion.

But Dan Frommer’s allegations in his latest post on BI don’t really add up. Frommer contends that the official twitter app for Android, which only works on Android v2.1 and up, is proof that Google’s mobile OS isn’t as “unified” as the competitors, and that this is a sign of early-onset serious fragmentation that will only get worse down the line. The thing is… it’s not.

It’s true that Android, available for deployment on any device manufacturers are willing to bundle it with, faces certain compatibility issues. With a multitude of devices, each with its own mostly-unique set of hardware and features, creating software that will run the same for everyone isn’t as easy as it is on the iPhone. But it’s nowhere near as much of an issue as Frommer makes it out to be.

For one thing, his “proof in the pudding” example of the official twitter app being unsupported except on v2.1+ has nothing to do with fragmentation. As any platform grows, matures, and gains new APIs, backwards compatibility is never a guarantee (unless you are Microsoft, that is!). It’s only natural that developers will need to set a cut-off point for which devices and platforms will be supported. And this isn’t an Android problem – every device out there, be it a cell phone,  a laptop, or a mainframe suffers from the same problem. Take the iPhone for example. Apple’s own OS 4 will be completely unavailable on the original iPhone. And even on the iPhone 3G, it’ll be there only in a highly-crippled form with no multi-tasking support.

The thing is, minimum OS/hardware specifications are not an indicator of platform fragmentation. They have absolutely nothing to do with it. While Android definitely does have some issues related to the wide range of hardware upon which it’s deployed, even that doesn’t necessarily have to result in fragmentation.

So you have a device that has a GPS chip and another that does not. Obviously a mobile map routing solution written for the first won’t work on the second – but who would expect/want it to anyway? A game that relies on the presence of accelerometer? Well, it’s not targeting users without an accelerometer in their device anyway! The point is – so long as the code goes through a single API to access any particular feature – whether or not that feature is actually available isn’t “fragmentation” at all. It’s just economics: you get what you pay for.

What would be fragmentation is if a mapping application for one Android handheld w/ GPS support doesn’t work on another Android handheld that also has GPS support just because the chips are different. Or because it has different drivers. But that’s not the case here! Android gives you a non-fragmented API to access the functionality of the hardware beneath – should your device support those features in the first place.

And that’s just about it. Pointing out that twitter requires OS v2.1 and above is a silly reason to accuse Android of being a fragmented platform – it’s like saying the iPhone is a failed experiment because an application designed to take advantage of multi-tasking 6 months from now won’t run on a device released 3 years prior: who cares!

15 thoughts on “Android: A Fragmented Platform or Not?

  1. “So you have a device that has a GPS chip and another that does not. Obviously a mobile map routing solution written for the first won’t work on the second – but who would expect/want it to anyway?”

    Everyone recognizes that hardware differences will cause issues for some software, even if the OS was upgraded. So that’s known and forgivable by everyone, and not the point that BI is making.

    Why can’t the Twitter app work on an 18-month old Android phone? Is there a hardware reason? (I doubt it.) If not, then why isn’t Android 2.1 available on that phone as well as the Twitter app?

    Is it that Google has let the carriers and manufacturers take control and run amok and screw the consumer? Does Google really care so little for users of its OS, and that ineffective in controlling its business partners?

  2. Mark, the question isn’t why the twitter app doesn’t work on hardware that doesn’t run v2.1 – the question is why that hardware doesn’t support v2.1 in the first place. The most likely answer is that it actually does support it, but the carriers haven’t bothered themselves to support their devices, and that’s not Google nor Android’s fault.

  3. My point is that it is partially Google’s fault in that they ALLOW the carriers/mfrs the FREEDOM to SCREW Google’s customers; it seems to be part of Google’s business model. Google gives the carrier an OS AND freedom to do as they please, knowing full well that the carriers/mfrs have no incentive to do anything for the customer.

    Doesn’t Google carry any weight or power? Can’t they negotiate a better business model?

    Or is freedom, and thus carrier freedom, to be prized above all?

  4. Well Mark, how would you have them do it? Who would use an OS that stipulates “you will always support every single device you ever released, providing new versions of the OS for it as they become available?”

    I agree with you that it sucks big-time for the customer, but I don’t see it making a difference what the platform is. Both Apple and RIM are really good at providing updates for older devices, but the rest are not – regardless of whether they are using their own homemade firmware or Android.

  5. I think Google’s business model is fine. It would be extremely costly and difficult for Google to control every manufacturer and carrier. It would also hinder the development of better hardware for the Android.

    Don’t forget that Google tried unsuccessfully to break the choke that U.S. consumer get from their carriers when Google try to sell Nexus One directly to the consumer. In other countries around the world, you buy a phone and choose any service provider you like. That does not happened here, and there many reasons for that, which I’m not going to discuss here.

    Fragmentation happens on many platforms. For example you cannot run some older software on the latest Windows 7 (64-bit). Even on the Macintosh I have seen certain programs would not run on their latest OS-X (Snow Leopard). Here we are talking about the same company making both the OS and the hardware!

    What is happening here is that Android is evolving at an unprecedented speed. I’m talking about both in terms of software and hardware. Since 2007, there has only been 3 iPhone models/generation. With Android, there has been 14 different models, several generations since 2008. That is only for the U.S. market. Worldwide there are 26 different models of Android cellphones supported by 60 carriers currently on the market in 49 countries (according to Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt on February 16, 2010).
    You can see U.S. market phone list here:
    http://androidcompare.com/netwrk.html

    People are not used to see so many different models and generations of new things coming out so fast. Android cellphones get obsolete so fast and some people who are not used to this can’t stomach it. Some of these graphs attest to the rapid growth of Android. For some of us it is still not fast enough.
    http://androidcompare.com/android-doing-well.html

    Fragmentation here is the natural part of Android’s growth. It it can happened to an OS-X it can certainly can happen to Android. It is a new territory and the media are not used to this type of growth. I have seen way too many ‘Android fragmentation’ articles. People are beating this topic to death.

  6. Here is the problem: Phones are not supposed to be “updated”. They are supposed to be purchased and tossed two years from when the consumer unwraps it.

    Google is thinking in terms of what the web is. People use the software and then it just auto-magically upgrades without any thought. Buy a new phone? I just got one?

    Apple understand this. Hell, they track their books based on a “service” model rather than a “product” model. They are expecting consumers to purchase a new phone every 1.5-2.5 years. BUT, they have a huge advantage.

    Apple stays unified because they have all the “fan boys” who jump all over the latest and greatest. Their customer base is used to having to do a little bit of work to upgrade. That’s the cost of being the bleading edge of technology. That’s why they are unified. They all drink the same kool-aid. Android has a lot of just regular people who want cool phones, but don’t want to have to “work” and upgrade the latest software. They customers who didn’t want to sell their soul to AT&T to have the iphone.

    FULL DISCLOSURE: I love apple. I have an iphone and an ipad. I buy their stuff and drink their kool-aid. I upgrade my phone when I can. It’s not often enough obviously.

  7. One more comment…

    Has anyone really used android 2.1 droid or nexus one and an iphone?

    Really? A 2 year old iphone still kicks the crap out of a 3 month old nexus one or droid.

    “There’s your problem” — said with a deep southern accent.

  8. Ryan: Yeah… I have used both for extended periods. Android 2.0/2.1 is far better than the iphone in its current incarnation. I don’t know of anything that I could do with an iphone that i couldn’t do with a DROID (except for accessing 5x as many fart apps), but the reverse is certainly not true. Voice search, multitasking, and most importantly, customizing my phone are all must haves that I use dozens of times a day.

  9. Frommer bias towards Apple is beyond argument. So why would you expect his article to be balanced?

  10. Just one thing about the “android os having more features” than the iPhone os. Are we talking about apple-supported features, or hardware supported features. For instance, you say customization, and I say yes, apple is idiotic for not adding that, but the jailbreak community is smarter. If we are talking about users of the android, jailbreaking may honestly blow some of their minds, but for the statistically more tech-savvy iPhone owners, (not meant as an insult) they are willing to do a little work for the features they want.

    So, to sumatize a confusing speel, basically the users of the android get what they want: a relativley easy to use phone with good features. The iPhone users get what they want: a huge platform, but they don’t mind doing a little work to get the extra little features they want. In essence, which phone is better depends wholy on the person using it.

    P.S. All of the “android only” features you mentioned I have on my iPhone right now… And more.

  11. @Justin,

    Really?

    You got 4G? Me thinks not!

    You plug phone into HD TV with HDMI to watch HD video? Me thinks not!

    You get phone with physical keyboard if you want? Me thinks not!

    You get video chat outside or away from wifi? Me thinks not!

    You got tethering? Me thinks not! (even if you jail it, your provider will penalize you)

    You got wifi hotspot? Ditto!

    You got dozens of ROMs To Make Phone Your OWn? Ditto!

    Your phone run Linux with hundreds of thousands of tech-savvy experts? No!

    I’m done.

  12. @Barrett

    Well said. Happy Android user with a fine QWERTY keyboard here. I would never ever trade my Terminal for anything (love Linux). And by the way I have also used an Iphone. People can tell me how good they can be… too bad I just don’t like them :)

  13. My new boyfriend has just started his new job in the German section of Apple. He said that the Iphone is currently state of the art in the field of mobile platforms and Apple is currently very popular in Europe. He said that Android is 2nd and Blackberry 3rd. However with the new smartphone developements it will be interessting to see who is on top at the end of the year.

  14. So if that’s the case, why is that Android devices are continuously dominating the markets today. Every now and then, a newer Android device is being launched and announced by large companies and consumers are continuously buying them even if it seems one device is just like the other.

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