Android

How fragmentation affects the Android ecosystem

Android fragmentation is often talked about, but not always clearly understood. Here's how it really affects Google's mobile ecosystem.

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Image: Stephen Shankland/CNET

Fragmentation is, without a doubt, the dirtiest word in the Android ecosystem.

Android fragmentation is the overwhelming diversity of Android devices and OS versions, which often causes problems regarding interoperability within the Android ecosystem.

"Being an open operating system, they are always going to have that problem. It is just inevitable," said Boris Metodiev, an analyst at 451 Research.

While touted as the greatest weakness of Android, though, it is also an integral part of the identity of Android and one of its strengths.

The openness of Android, which laid the foundation for fragmentation, is one of the key reasons Google was able to scale the platform to mass market share so quickly. As it stands today, Android commandsmore than 80% of the global market share.

However, fragmentation has caused problems for Google itself, and those involved in the Android ecosystem. Here are some of the main issues presented by Android fragmentation.

It's hurting OS adoption

According to a survey conducted by OpenSignal,there were nearly 19,000 distinct Android devices seen in 2014 with close to 12,000 devices seen the year prior. The initial problem caused by this large number of distinct devices is a severe difficulty in creating an OS to serve even the majority of them.

The problem is only partly due to differing devices though, as new OS versions often have to pass through vendors before they show up on new devices. Because Android is an open platform, vendors have the option to, and often do, add their own widgets and thematic "skins" to an OS version to run on their devices.

The fact that newer versions of the Android OS aren't available to certain devices keeps the manufacturers of those devices reliant on older versions of the OS. At the time of this writing, we are four months out from the initial release of the newest Android OS, 5.0 Lollipop, and Android devices running past versions of software are still being released.

Currently, Lollipop makes up 3.3% of the entire install base on Android while iOS 8, which was released only a couple months before Lollipop, has reached 75% adoption. For quite some time after its release, Lollipop remained at less than 1% of the install base, making 3.3% a big improvement.

This slow adoption rate is holding Google back from advancing its mobile strategy. Fewer Lollipop users means that Google doesn't get as clear of a picture of how people are using the OS, what problems they are encountering, and which features are truly helping them. It stunts Google's innovation.

It's painful for developers

Perhaps one of the most dangerous aspects of fragmentation is the challenges it presents to app developers. For example, consider building within the confines of an OS version.

Right now, the majority of Android users are on KitKat — roughly 41%. Another 42% are running one of three versions of Jelly Bean, and there's still a strong number of users are on Gingerbread, Ice Cream Sandwich, or Lollipop. In contrast, iOS users are 75% iOS 8, 22% iOS 7, and 3% are running an earlier version.

Annette Zimmermann, research director at Gartner, said that this keeps users from being able to run many current apps, especially with older versions of the OS still widely used in some markets.

"This problem is decreasing this year now as the portion of Android [Gingerbread] has shrunk to a very small number in the overall market and the main markets affected are emerging markets," Zimmermann said. "Chinese vendors who were the main vendors for still shipping Android [Gingerbread] devices have moved on to 4.0 now."

Even after taking into account the number of different OS versions, developers still have to contend with forked versions of the software and disparate hardware features. This is one of Android's strengths, as it offers a handset for almost anyone in any situation, but it tends to make it more difficult for developers to integrate hardware services.

"For example, on Apple devices there are more common features like Apple Pay and Touch ID that [developers] can integrate into their apps," said Forrester analyst Jeffrey Hammond. "It's a much dicier proposition in the Android community."

Google has established the Android Compatibility program to help combat the problems that have arisen with fragmentation, but it is only helpful if developers choose to participate.

It's keeping Android out of the enterprise

Google has made its intentions to be an enterprise provider abundantly clear. And, with the recent public release of Android for Work, it further solidified its mission. Android for Work is a valiant effort to capture enterprise users, but it was created to work on Lollipop, which hasn't been able to get a foothold.

There is a greater problem with Android adoption in the enterprise, with iOS taking 73% of the mobile enterprise market share and Android capturing 25%, according to the latest Good Technology mobility report.

Fragmentation affects enterprise adoption because of the problems it causes for IT. First, it causes problems in the area of support because it is impossible for an organization to employ enough support to account for every device and OS version.

Zimmermann said that Gartner advises enterprises that want to deploy Android to choose a limited number of Android devices to be allowed and supported, and to test them with device management software.

"This is time consuming also when there is new hardware coming out and it is very restrictive to the employee who sees hundreds of Android models in the market but may only choose from 2 options for work purposes," Zimmermann said.

It can also affect an enterprise's greater mobile strategy if it needs to build and support a mobile app, as the organization will have to also choose which OS versions to support as well.

In part, fragmentation is what makes Android distinctly Android. It raises many issues, but it also opens up a world of possibilities for users who value personal choice and customization.

What do you think?

We want to know. Is Android fragmentation a big deal? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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