What’s really going on with Android “fragmentation”

This is a follow-up to a post I did last year, “Does Android “fragmentation” actually affect end users?”

Unfortunately, tech news sites keep referring to this Android “fragmentation” problem in the same tired old ways. Here are some recent takes on it:
Has Google Done Enough to Keep Android Phones Up-to-date?
Google: Android fragmentation ‘up to manufacturers’
The Android era: From G1 to Jelly Bean
Android 4.1 Jelly Bean: Can it Solve Android’s Fragmentation Problem?
Newest Android Operating System Insufficient for Developers, Fragmentation Top Priority
Google Copies Microsoft, Not Apple, To Fix Android Fragmentation
Fragmentation, OS upgrades: Do people even care?

First of all, as I mentioned in my earlier entry, the Android “fragmentation” problem almost all tech journalists refer to basically doesn’t exist or is a non-issue. The vast majority of Android users are running either 2.2 or 2.3, and there’s not that huge a difference between the two versions (yes, I’ve used both on more than one phone). If you are a developer making an app, code it for 2.2+, and you’re targeting almost all Android users. Again, as I said before, I’ve used Android 1.5, 1.6, 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, and 4.0 (just flashed 4.1 on my Galaxy Nexus this week, too). Every single app I use has worked on every version I’ve had. When I get a new version of Android, I restore all my app backups using Titanium Backup, and they all work. Same deal if I install them from Google Play (Titanium Backup is just faster and adds in user data).

I did discover this year, though, what real Android fragmentation looks like. It isn’t running different version numbers. It’s running different skins and apps.

A friend of mine has a Droid X, and she wanted to know how to make Google Voice the default texting app. Basically, couldn’t be done. Had nothing to do with the fact that she was running Android 2.3. When I ran Android 2.3, I had no problems making Google Voice the default texting app. I was running a relatively vanilla (CyanogenMod) 2.3, so when you tap to text someone, it prompts you which program to use. On the Droid X, the built-in messenger app automatically loads up, even if you set Google Voice as the default texting app. Thanks, Motorola for your wonderful Motoblur interface. It stinks.

Then I had a co-worker who wanted to add her work Exchange email account to her phone. She had an Android phone, so she thought I could help, as I also had an Android phone. I also had initially thought my being an Android user would help in this situation. Nope. She had some random LG phone with its own skin and default apps. The email client offered POP3 and IMAP, but Exchange was simply not an option. Again, this has nothing to do with the Android version number. After all, she also was running Android 2.3. In the regular Android 2.3, the Email app can do Exchange. So I had to do some browsing around Google Play and test-drive a few free apps to finally find one that did Exchange.

Those examples are what real fragmentation is, not people using Android 2.2 v. Android 2.3.

Many people don’t know where to put the blame. Is it Google’s fault? Is it the handset manufacturers’ faults? Is it the wireless companies’ faults? Well, I don’t really care whose fault it is, but I know two simple steps Google can take to fix the problem (yes, the real problem, not the one the tech journalists claim to be the problem):

  1. Change the way skins work. Handset makers want ways to differentiate their Android phones from each other. So they take a regular Android operating system from Google, and then they customize it or “skin” it with some overlain interface. For Motorola, that’s Motoblur. For Samsung, it’s TouchWiz. For HTC, it’s Sense. That’s fine. I don’t mind them customizing the interface. The only problem is that then the customer cannot uncustomize the interface without rooting, and it’s a very small percentage (probably in the single digits) of Android users who will actually root their phones to install custom roms. So instead of just saying “Here! Bake in whatever you like so it can’t be undone,” Google should make it so Android can be skinned through a theming engine, and the handset makers can then make theirs the default theme, but then users who are interested can go back to the vanilla Google theme or download other themes from Google Play.
  2. Make all stock apps available through Google Play. I shouldn’t have to go hunting down an alternative to Email that includes Exchange support. That should just be in Google Play, ready to install. So handset manufacturers or wireless providers can put on whatever stock apps they think people will need, and then customers who don’t like those apps can then install the stock Google apps instead.

Google has taken a few steps in the right direction, and when more Android users are on Ice Cream Sandwich (4.0) or Jelly Bean (4.1), then they’ll appreciate these steps more. In Ice Cream Sandwich, you can disable preinstalled apps. And in Jelly Bean, you can disable notifications from certain apps, even if you keep them enabled.

I’m a big open source fan, but sometimes Google just has to take some control back. Give carriers and handset makers the right to customize, but then give users more of a right to uncustomize. Then you’ll get less of the real fragmentation problem.


  1. UbuntuCat my good man, you’ve got it just a tad wrong.

    There’s definitely fragmentation.

    I have gotten so deeply agitated at this point, by tech bloggers from small personal websites to big ones, telling me about Chrome for Android.

    A piece of software that we know to only be available to the few who have 4.0

    Take that into consideration. Chrome, a software by Google, the company that also has control over the OS, being available to only a small percentage.

    When you turn it on it’s head like you do, sure there isn’t fragmentation if most are running 2.2 and 2.3, but it’s a major problem if that majority is longing for a version that isn’t available to that same majority because the carriers are trying to catch up, or whatever reason you want to give it.

    4.0 and 4.1 are available, most just can’t get it, and that’s not so much fragmentation as being forced behind the times.

    The word forced being used in a connotation that certainly makes one feel a tad bit depressed.

    I’m not really looking for the fault, I just think the system is fucked.

    What about that whole MPG thing the US government did? Why not demand that tomorrow, every new phone that is released is forced to have 4.1, and of course this requires that hardware to be sufficient. Let secondary markets like eBay allow for those looking for used budget devices that already exist far too prominently and leave too much to be desired.

    They wanted to gain market-share, they did, because carriers don’t mind releasing stuff that’s a year behind. Well now how about we focus less on market-share and more on getting that awesome user-experience you speak of in 4.0

    You mean that a customized version of Linux allows for you to disable pre-installed apps? wow, just into it’s 4th year in existence?

  2. Android fragmentation is a nice buzzword to spread around.
    Look at iOS. Even though all iOS users are on the same iOS version the fact is that older devices don’t have access to the same features than the ones with a newer version.

    Windows Phone is another example now that we know that Windows Phone 8 apps won’t run on WP7.5.

  3. I’d have to agree that theming is a problem. I’m running a Pantech, and no custom ROM’s support it, so I can’t change it to the default launcher and locker. Luckily, Pantech doesn’t block me from setting Go Launcher EX and Go Locker as the default, so I can deal with Pantech Home.

    Fragmentation is an issue, too, though. As Nicholai said, Froyo and Gingerbread (and I think Honeycomb) can’t use Chrome, and Web is a terrible browser. Also, I can’t run Firefox, because it doesn’t support my hardware. I support Google letting OEM’s sell Android, and I don’t want them to lock it down like Apple, but different models cause fragmentation too.

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