Android has a problem. Or, rather, Android developers have a problem. Despite dominating a whopping 84.7% of the global smartphone market (up from 79.6% in 2013), Android fragmentation gets worse each year, with developers needing to account for at least 18,796 different Android devices in circulation this year.
What's a developer to do?
Whatever you do, don't panic. For a variety of reasons, Android fragmentation, bad as it is, may be more opportunity than obstacle.
Android's storming of the Bastille
Android's market share dominance isn't news. For years, the open-source operating system has consumed more and more of the smartphone market, most recently growing shipments by 33% year-over-year to end Q2 2014 with 84.7% of the market (Figure A), according to IDC:
Worldwide smartphone OS market share.
For those keeping track at home, that's a huge jump from Android's 36.1% market share in 2011. Apple's iOS, during that same four-year period, slouched from 18.7% market share to 11.7%.
What's particularly interesting, however, is where Android gets used. While there are high-end Android phones offered by Samsung and others, Android's real sweet spot is in the low- to mid-tier of the market (Figure B), as IDC shows:
Worldwide smartphone OS share by price tier.
This isn't surprising, given Android's penetration in emerging markets (Figure C), something that VisionMobile's developer survey highlights:
iOS and Android dominate developer markets.
This strength in emerging markets should continue, IDC research manager Ramon Llamas posits: "During the second quarter, 58.6% of all Android smartphone shipments worldwide cost less than $200 off contract, making them very attractive compared to other devices. With the recent introduction of Android One, in which Google offers reference designs below $100 to Android OEMs, the proportion of sub-$200 volumes will climb even higher."
With the lowest retail price for a full-featured phone dropping in China to $9, as Joi Ito found on a recent trip to Shenzhen, the global market will go to Google.
All of which is great for Google and its Android platform. More Android devices means more opportunity to monetize mobile services and advertising.
The problem, however, is fragmentation.
Android fragmentation: Getting worse all the time
Compared to Apple's careful corralling of just a few stock iPhone models, Android is a veritable stampede, with more than 18,000 Android devices in circulation today, according to a new study from OpenSignal.
Amazingly, it's getting worse.
How much worse? According to OpenSignal, Android fragmentation swelled roughly 60% in the last year alone, with the company seeing 11,868 devices in 2013 compared to 18,796 this year. To visualize this, OpenSignal has a great image of Android fragmentation in August 2013 (Figure D):
Android fragmentation in August 2013.
Compared to August 2014 (Figure E):
Android fragmentation in August 2014.
It's a pretty picture. That is, unless you're a developer and have to optimize your application experience for those 18,796 different devices.
Or secure it. As TechRepublic's Jack Wallen points out, Android's very popularity makes it an inviting target for malicious hackers:
"[B]ecause of the meteoric rise of Android, it will be targeted. That doesn't mean you have drop it like an infected potato. What it does mean is that your mobile device must be used with the same care and caution that you use with your desktop and laptop. Just because Android has a foundation built upon Linux doesn't mean that it can't be compromised. In time, with enough poor usage, anything can be made insecure."
With potential security problems and less revenue for developers (VisionMobile finds that the median revenue per app, per month for Android fluctuates between $100 and $201, while iOS commands $500 to $1000 per app, per month), Android seems like a difficult proposition.
Is there a choice?
Except, of course, that it isn't. Unless a developer is solely focused on the high-end phone market, which iOS dominates, Android is a fact of life, one that no amount of fragmentation justifies ignoring. Making money on Android is a volume play of gargantuan proportions.
Or, more likely, it's tied to particular markets. An app developer building apps for Western markets needn't be consumed with the overwhelming fragmentation of Asia-Pacific. And for developers in Asia-Pacific, they've proven to be a very scrappy, ingenious lot that has been dealing with multitudinous devices far longer than the West has.
They'll figure it out.
Equally important, as OpenSignal highlights, is that fragmentation actually leads to far greater opportunities than it closes off:
"The availability of cheap Android phones (rarely running the most recent version) means that they have a much greater global reach than iOS, so app developers have a wider audience to build for....One of the strengths of Android fragmentation is that it allows for a great amount of freedom for device manufacturers, meaning that consumers are able to get a device that perfectly fits the specifications of their demands. This has proven especially valuable in allowing Android to take the place of Nokia's Symbian as the go-to OS in less economically developed countries."
Google, for its part, aims to help. Beyond device fragmentation, Google has sought to alleviate fragmentation by pushing OEMs to certify against newer versions of Android in return for the right to distribute Google Mobile Services (GMS) or Google Apps. Google has also introduced new developer APIs that tie directly into Google Play, side-stepping OEMs to ensure that end users get the latest, greatest Android experience.
Between Google's efforts and developer ingenuity, Android fragmentation — as bad as it is — remains a highly tractable problem.
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.