Google trying to fix Android fragmentation. Are more Nexus devices the answer?

May 17, 2013

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    Fragmentation can be a pain, especially when you’re waiting on your carrier to update its bloat-ware when all you want it to get your hands on the latest Android features and bug fixes. However, it turns out that the Android development team are eager to get on top of this problem, as they discussed fragmentation and other questions from an audience of developers at Google I/O.

    During the interview, the Android team were quick to acknowledge the problems with fragmentation, but obviously it’s a difficult balance to maintain between supporting older hardware and pushing innovation forward. Dave Burke, the engineering director for Android, had this to say:

    There is so much more we can do. And there is also so much more that can be done at the hardware level too. There's lots more innovation that can come.

    Of course, the pursuit of more and more features and innovation is mainly what has caused this problem. We’ve already seen that a huge percentage of Android handsets are still running 2.3 Gingerbread, and some are running even older versions like Froyo. Newer versions, like Ice Cream Sandwich, require more system memory, which has left older handsets stuck with dated operating systems regardless of carrier intentions to provide upgrades or not, which is a problem that Firefox has also spotted and plans to put an end too.

    We're trying to make Android more efficient so that even entry-level smartphones can use the software,

    To address the wider problem, Google already significantly altered Android programming interfaces in Android 4.0. The layered nature of the software was designed to allow hardware designers to update and tweak software more easily, which was supposed to speed up the updating process. But as a result, we’re seeing more and more apps which only support Android 4.0 and higher. Sadly, this appears to be an unavoidable sacrifice of altering the platform in order to produce better results in the future.

    Perhaps we’ll see further updates more along the lines of Android 4.1 to 4.2, where new features are added, yet the fundamental operating system remains the same. That way, specific features can be address without having to completely re-work the underlying operating system, and device manufacturers shouldn’t have to worry about updating their software.

    The Nexus effect

    Burke also alluded to the problems caused by device manufacturer’s non-“pure” Android versions, which again slow down the updating process. It’s obvious that every time a new version of Android is released that it takes some time for third party developers to update their own software, and this costs time and money, which some handset developers aren’t willing to put into such incremental upgrades.

    google-io-galaxy-s4-google-edition-2

    Will the Galaxy S4 Google Edition be the first of many new Nexus type handsets?

    The Nexus experience is clearly beneficial if you want the latest features, and devices like the pure Android Galaxy S4 show that developers believe that consumers have an appetite for more consistent updates.

    The Samsung Galaxy S4 will have the Nexus experience, and it will have more timely updates

    Perhaps we’ll be seeing a larger number of devices shipping with default Android, or at least a greater consumer choice when it comes to Nexus type devices in the future. But again, this doesn’t really help users already locked out of newer Android features, but it would help reduce future Android fragmentation.

    Striking the right balance

    We’ve already seen software changes, like Project Butter, attempt to improve the performance of the Android operating system, but so far performance improvements like these haven’t been able to make their way onto lower end devices. Burke stated that although Jelly Bean has gone some ways to improve the performance of Android, there still is lot of work to be done.

    In order for these future improvements to have a real impact on fragmentation, Burke suggests the need for more testing on lower end devices. Take the Nexus 4 for example, it’s a pretty high end smartphone and there are lots of users using lower spec devices, so developing for these higher specs is always going to leave the more budget orientated customers behind. But again, this has to be balanced against the demand for new features and innovative ideas. Bringing down memory usage is one thing, but you can’t take advantage of multi-core support or graphics computational power on older hardware.

    So, is Google really going to be able to solve the problem of fragmentation? Well, probably not, at least not without forcing the handset manufactures and carriers to update.

    Android covers a vast range of hardware configurations, and you’re never going to be able to support aging technologies for ever. However, there are lots of things which Google can do, and is doing, to offer consumers ways out of the problem. Nexus devices are a good solution to the problem, and more Nexus devices, like the Galaxy S4, could offer consumers a range of solutions, hopefully eventually encompassing  a wider range of budgets.

    LG-Nexus-4

    A wider range of Nexus devices is probably the best bet to alleviate the fragmentation problem, but will manufacturers want to lose the option to add their own software?

    Secondly, building Android around lower specifications could help keep updates running on a wider range of devices, but it doesn’t guarantee that carriers and handset manufacturers will update their handsets. However, if the updates can be targeted at more specific pieces of software, rather than OS wide updates, then updates may be easier to rollout. Android 4.1 to 4.2 for example was a much more simple upgrade than 2.3 to 4.0.

    There will always be cut-off points for how long handsets can be supported. But hopefully in the future, if Google can achieve these goals, we could see software updates roll out a little quicker, and hopefully have a little more choice regarding which handsets to buy for reliable updates.

    Comments

    • tbro4033

      I agree 100% and I think convincing more device manufacturers and carriers to incorporate pure Android in their devices is a great idea. When I got my first Android phone, I really wanted a Nexus device. However, the Galaxy Nexus was already outdated, yet the only one available on Verizon. I am surprised that Samsung, of all manufacturers, agreed to this considering how well they are already doing and the fact that this gives them less control over the S4. I really hope this turns out to be a success and convinces both Google and other manufacturers to do this in the future with “non-Nexus” devices running pure Android. If I could get an S4 running pure Android through Verizon, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

      • http://www.facebook.com/Trent8381 Trent Richards

        “convinces both Google and other manufacturers to do this in the future with “non-Nexus” devices running pure Android.”

        Trust me nothing needs to convince Google of this. If they had it their way, all Android devices would run stock Android.

        • tbro4033

          Yes and no. I definitely imagine that Google would prefer more phones with pure Android, but if that’s really the case, how come only one manufacturer gets to produce a Nexus device each year? Why not let each produce a Nexus device every year, along with their other devices?

          • http://www.facebook.com/Trent8381 Trent Richards

            There is a difference between devices with stock Android and Nexus devices. Google is heavily involved in the design of the Nexus devices and they only want to take on one project per category each year. Android devices such as the upcoming gs4 ge don’t require nearly as much involvement by Google. In fact Google doesn’t have to be involved in the design at all for the OEMs to use stock Android.

      • chupparahh

        The problem is why Google don’t want to tie down manufacturers to use stock Android only because the main point of Android is its openness and manufacturers like that. By taking away the very core of why Android is in abundance in most smartphones is suicide.

        • tbro4033

          Which is why I love what Samsung did. Send out the phone with their own version of Android and whatever bloatware they want to attach to it, but then also allow people to get it with stock Android. This gives the customer more choice (not only the many different hardware/phone options, but now also software options) and brings us closer to an Android Utopia :P

          • On a Clear Day

            I like Samsung’s open approach as well. Although I can’t imagine buying the Google S4 as part of why I want the Samsung S4 is for the various specialized, proprietary software that it comes with. I will be buying an unlocked/non-carrier associated version probably the Active version when it comes out if it is worth the extra.

            When I used to sell cell phones an Apple regional rep came to our store one time and made much ado about how “fragmented” Android was over the iPhone – everyone working their gave a big yawn of dis-interest behind the reps back. Fact is, we knew, as anyone being honest knows, that people weren’t buying the iPhone because they were “informed consumers” at all; and only tech folk who have way too much time on their hands and tend to be spending way to much time with their phones (over members of the opposite sex! – really care.

            Who the heck can honestly tell that much difference between the 4.1 or 4.2 or whatever? What people in general want is a reliable phone; that doesn’t make them have to think about it. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and sometimes a device is just a device.

            • William

              Would I like for a closer Android OS fragmentation, Yes. but it’s not going to stop me from buying Android products. What does bother me, is that the hardware isn’t closer to being the same. Nexus is supposed to be the best, but they lack micro sd. while Galaxies lack something else.

            • On a Clear Day

              I agree William. I have two friends who have the Nexus 4 and love it; after all it is a really good phone. However, when they asked my advice before buying one I said that I wouldn’t care if washed dirty dishes too – if it doesn’t have a removable battery nor a micro-SD card – it is not even a consideration for me.

              It does make it harder to make a decision; the Nexus 4 has a great price point (when purchased from the Google Store); great specs but seems to have been deliberately built so as not to compete with certain manufacturers models – thus the lack of 4G LTE and the aforementioned wanting qualities.

              In a few months I am going to get the S4 – either the standard version or the Active if it really does have anything truly worth having (who knows they may seal it so you can’t remove the battery if they want to make it waterproof, which will eliminate it for me from consideration).

              I guess we just will have to continue to use our heads and pick and choose the devices that at the moment best meet as many of our expectations and desires as possible – as is the case with all human decisions I think you will agree. sms

    • Simon Belmont

      “Newer versions, like Ice Cream Sandwich, require more system memory,
      which has left older handsets stuck with dated operating systems” “but so far performance improvements like these haven’t been able to make their way onto lower end devices.”

      My B&N Nook Color (basically almost three year old hardware) is running Android 4.2.2 extremely well with only 512MB of RAM. Project Butter is definitely evident in how smooth it is. I think OEMs should try harder to not skin their stuff so heavily that bogs everything down (I’ve seen reviewers note how TouchWiz slows down even the SGS4, which is a powerhouse). My point is stock Android truly is fast and usable even on old hardware.

      • http://www.facebook.com/david.allen.5895 David Allen

        Hell there are several people running 4.2.2 on the original G1 hardware. Given that it is using some of the sd card for ram storage and not ever single feature is there but it still runs.

    • Mavasilisk

      My Prestigio 7070C 256 RAM & 1 GHz CPU is pretty laggy when running ICS but silky smooth when running 2.2 Froyo. I really like the latest updates and the thing that pisses me off is that I bough my tablet and I got only 2 updates from 2.4.81 to 2.4.82 and 83. I know the hi-tech world should go ahead but they just FORCE you to buy something new. The bloatware…. when I entered a local store and played with some android devices the first thing I saw was the lagging home launcher and then I though “blah another crappy *you-must-use-it* launcher” that the regular user doesnt even know how to change it and he thinks “hey, dude, I’ll pay for it and it will be laggy like this?” The clean Android is the brightest idea I’ve ever read. I hope carriers and manufacturers will follow it like a rule to keep it clean but something makes me think they are going to fill it with bloatware again.

      • Simon Belmont

        I think 256MB of RAM might be the issue, so I could see where FroYo or even Gingerbread would work better for you. Apps and even background services and so forth are probably being continually kicked out of RAM to make room for new processes to run, which would induce a lot of lag due to the I/O churn and, of course, lower battery life.

        IMO, anything with at least 512MB of RAM and up will run recent versions of Android (4.x) quite well. Like I mentioned above, my original generation B&N Nook Color from 2010 runs Android 4.2.2 extremely smoothly.

    • Ivan Myring

      I think they should stick to HOLO but add in apps that they want to be preinstalled. Keep the look nice and add features afterwards

    • MasterMuffin

      Aaand that’s why we aren’t going to see KLP 5.0 which is good. And older hardware works fine with the light stock Android, and even if I UC my sgs3 at 600Mhz max, 4.2.2 is smooth!

      • Arsenal™

        Ha! i can even run sense on 800mhz

        • Simon Belmont

          HTC Sense 1.0 ran great on my 2009 HTC Hero at 528 MHz. Just saying. :)

          Yeah, yeah, I know it’s way more bloated now. However, Sense 3.6 still runs like a top on my 2011 EVO 3D, but of course, I’m usually on an AOSP based ROM, which runs great on it. ;)

          • Arsenal™

            yea

            Sense 3.6 was the most heaviest RAM hungry Sense version ever
            AOSP FTW!!

        • MasterMuffin

          You can run, but stock is SMOOTH on 600Mhz. And what Sense, 1,0?

          • SeraZR™

            nope sense 4.1
            no really its really smooth

            • MasterMuffin

              Well I’m currently writing this with my sgs3 max 200Mhz. It’s still smoother than my sgs2. Can you do better :P

            • SeraZR™

              omfg i dont have 4 cores! xD

            • MasterMuffin

              I’d say VICTORY :D

    • Kindroid

      For most users, fragmentation is a minor inconvenience. If the phone continues to do what it did when they bought it….what the hell. The angst over OS updates is mainly a techie thing. If it weren’t for the fact that Apple does the semi-update thing and claims that makes them better…fragmentation wouldn’t be an issue at all.

      It is an inconvenient truth that older devices can’t handle the demands of higher level OS updates. Apple says they are better because the give every one the update. But that is not true. Everyone didn’t get Siri when it came out. And even when they do give updates to older models….if often leads to increased crashes and buggieness for the older phones.

      If you are going to be an Android update conscious person…buy from a company that has a proven track record of quick updates.

      • http://www.facebook.com/johnphillip.saayman John-Phillip Saayman

        I agree. Altough I must say fragmentation is a bit of a issue. But seems like general and older people don’t get it, so I guess it doesn’t matter that much to some.

      • kascollet

        Ridiculous. 80% of the software improvements come to 3 years old iPhones. It’s much much bett than…well… no update at all.
        Be realistic, the lack of real, timely, global software update is a big issue. You like malwares ? Seriously ?

        • taz89

          well i will disagree there, my mate has the 3gs with ios 6 and it is slow compared to how it was on ios4/5 and it most certainly is buggy in his case…has atleast 2 3 freezes a day where has hast reboot the phone by holding out power and home button..as for what features the 3gs got the new iphone 5 did..dont think he has much to show for with his ios 6…as google have shown with the recent i/o they dont need to update the os to bring new features for example apple had to update just to bring new features to siri where as google are bringing new features to google now without an os update..same for the game service, apple had to update to a new os for game centre where as google didnt, point am making is apples and googles update strategy is different where for apple to give users new features they need to do a full os update where as google can give users new features without having to do a full os update…

          • kascollet

            Sorry, couldn’t read beyond the “my friend” point :-D

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001088959750 Ryan Lounsbury

      There was a time that in order to have hardware with the Google branding on it you had to keep it within the confines of Google’s intent of what Android was.

      I could see that scenario comeback under the Nexus brand. Where, if a hardware vendor wants their device in the Nexus product line which is an open hardware ecosystem outside of the constrains of skinning and carrier contracts they can offer it up with stock Android and sell it via the Google Play store. Then Google can sell that to consumers as the unfragmented always up-to-date (ala iOS) providing the best consumer experience.

      Of course the two problems with that are: a.) why would vendors like Samsung want to offer their hardware as a stock “Nexus” device when they are pushing their own brand of Android ala Touch Wiz? b.) the market would be fairly small and mostly more of the tech savvy and Android faithful. Not many people are willing to purchase a handset at full price since that typically puts a smartphone on par with an entry level laptop.

      I guess in answer of the vendors getting on board with a Nexus series is that a sale is a sale regardless of it being skinned or stock android. Though, HTC did just take a dump on the concept stating that their devices are getting Sense whether you like it or not.

    • FrillArtist

      Guys, it’s just a Google Experience version of the S4. It’s not going to change anything. Samsung, HTC, Acer, Sony are still going to keep making their own Android phones. Stop dreaming.

    • http://www.facebook.com/johnphillip.saayman John-Phillip Saayman

      I guess I should get experience on a Nexus 4 or something. Because the way you praise stock Android must mean it’s fantastic. I don’t quite get it, i think a lot of people like touchwiz and so on. I wouldnt give up my Samsung things like eye tracking and motion sensors and barometers. Thats the only places you can really stand out. So please let me know what makes stock Android so perfect. (I’m not being sarcastic, so please, no rude replies) I’m just asking.

      • Chris

        stock is smoother, you have UI consistency, more resources for apps, no bloat, minimalist, no GB leftovers, quick OS updates, better dev support due to AOSP. Thats only a few from the top of my head.

    • Lowry Brooks

      I don’t think we’ll ever see all OEMS do pure android. And Pure android is nice for updates, but it’s kind of boring compared to all the features Sense and Touchwiz bring.

      • http://twitter.com/PerryKahai Perry Kahai, Ph.D.

        You know what, I tend to agree with Lowry . . . pure Android IS kind of boring as compared to TouchWiz (not sure if I can say that about Sense).

        • Lowry Brooks

          Ya. Sense Just looks nice but overall, sucks. But touchwiz genuinely brings new features. And I think alot of Android Fanboys don’t understand it isn’t good for the Ecosystem if EVERYONE is shipping pure android…. It would be incredibly boring, it would be windows PCs all over again.

    • Lowry Brooks

      I don’t think we’ll ever see all OEMS do pure android. And Pure android is nice for updates, but it’s kind of boring compared to all the features Sense and Touchwiz bring.

    • http://twitter.com/PerryKahai Perry Kahai, Ph.D.

      I think that having two versions of a phone poses a serious question: if Google can sell an unlocked version of the S4 with an unlocked bootloader, is the warranty void on those phones? Naturally not, I think. Also, ultimately who provides the warranty on ANY phone? Quite frankly, the manufacturer. So, why should warranty be voided on ANY phone if we unlock the bootloader ourselves?

      I just bought (paid full price, thus no contract) the AT&T version of the phone and, at my option, may want to install stock Android once Google releases it. It only makes sense for Samsung, then, to allow us to switch over to stock Android and, in doing so, to not void the warranty on the phone. AT&T may cry “bloody murder” if it wants to because, ultimately, the warranty is serviced by Samsung and not by AT&T.

      Interestingly, AT&T refused to unlock the phone because, they say,

      “The device was purchased on a Third Party Reseller which is not affiliated w/ ATT, Device Unlock is unavailable.”

      I purchased the phone from TigerDirect, so go figure. Nothing on their website at https://www.att.com/deviceunlock/client/en_US/ says anything to that effect. So, go figure!

    • Justin Foster

      Another possible solution is creating some kind of Hardware upgrade program where the consumer pays a fee to have the hardware of their device upgraded to make it capable of an OS upgrade. Manufacturers could still make money this way and expand support for devices.

      I think the Motorola X-phone, if rumors are true, will be the prototype for both hardware and software longevity, re-usability, and expandability. Imagine being able to increase the internal memory, RAM, screen size, etc…for a fee.

      Of course new devices would have to be built in a way that has this goal in mind.

    • nandish

      I hope google gives us a nexus rom or update so that people could by choice change to pure android without having to root and all that for the less tech inclined

    • CpuKnight

      Why not do this instead.The companies should develop a Skinned UI Rom as well as an optimized Stock ROM for minimalist and the first time the phone turns on, you can choose which to download and install.That would make updating significantly faster and potentially make phone releases faster as Stock ROMS arent as difficult to develop. So release the phone with Stock only available and at a later date, give a notification to notify the user that has been released and available for download with this and that features.Let the consumer choose because freedom of choice is what the people want =D

    • William

      Nexus still needs to add micro sd slot.

    • APai

      yeah! more nexus devices like the S4 is the only way forward. there’s huge demand for plain vanilla android – 5million cyanogen mod download is proof enough

    • Oli72

      nexus phones will never have micro sd in them please stop dreaming and whining. 4G LTE is overrated.

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